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Coping with uncertainty and managing expectations

Research shows that anxiety can often be caused (or made worse) by a sense of uncertainty or ambiguity; and those who are more tolerant to uncertainty are less likely to experience anxiety. Poor tolerance to uncertainty can manifest itself in a number of ways. Some people may feel paralysed by uncertainty – not wanting to make a decision about something, in case it’s the wrong one. Some may repeatedly go over and worry about all of the possible outcomes of an event, in the hope that this will prepare them for all possible eventualities. Others may constantly check things, or repeatedly seek out reassurance from others to try to alleviate the uncertainty they feel. And these behaviours can often be anxiety provoking in of themselves.

Unfortunately, pregnancy and parenthood are full of unknown quantities; whether they are small things (like no knowing how many muslin cloths to buy) or large (being unsure of what the birth will be like). And as there is almost nothing in life that we can really be 100% certain about, the best ways to cope with this is by accepting uncertainty, and building our tolerance it.

Acceptance

One way of dealing with the negative impact that uncertainty can have on your mental health is to change the way you think about it. Rather than trying to fight against it, and minimise uncertainty in any way you can think of… it can be more helpful to try to just accept that uncertainty is a part of life, and start to let go of trying to control and understand everything.

We know this is easier said that done, but one way to try to do this is to use a technique similar to thought distancing. Let’s look at an example.

When you notice that a thought about uncertainty pops into your head, rather than chasing it, and worrying about it… try to take a step back from it, and just observe it. Try to notice how it makes you feel, without judging, and without reacting to it in any way.

For example, you could say to yourself something like:

“I notice that I’m having a thought about uncertainty, and that a lack of certainly makes me feel anxious. I feel agitated, my heart rate is speeding up, and I feel tense in my shoulders and jaw. I feel like I need to do something to stop this discomfort. But I’m just going to sit and watch these feelings for a while …”

When you have a worry like this, take a step back and ask yourself – is this something I can control, or not? In most cases, there is no way of knowing the outcome of our situation… and there is no way of being able to guarantee a specific outcome. Worrying about things you can’t know or control isn’t productive, and will only make your symptoms worse. So the best thing you can do is try to accept the uncertainty, and let it go from your mind.

You could try saying something like this to yourself “Being uncertain about something does not mean something bad will happen. Uncertainty is part of life, and I need to accept this, and let my need for certainty go.”

Have faith in yourself

Recognising how you feel about uncertainty is important. We know that not knowing how things will turn out, and not knowing what will happen in the future can cause some people significant anxiety. Another method that might help you to begin to accept uncertainty is to have faith in your ability to cope with the unknown.

Take a moment to think about how you coped with a situation in the past when things didn’t go exactly according to plan (in either a big way, or a small way). How did you feel the last time life threw you a curve ball… or when something unexpected happened? Maybe you felt stressed because things didn’t go according to plan. Maybe you felt ok with it; or maybe it didn’t really bother you at all. And as well as thinking about how it made you feel, think about what you did. Were you able to cope with this unexpected event?

Often our anxieties about uncertainty are linked to the fact that we underestimate our ability to cope in unexpected (and/or negative) situations. So sometimes it can help to remind ourselves that unexpected things happen all of the time; and most of the time we are able to cope with what is thrown at us.

Building tolerance

One way to become more comfortable with uncertainly is through practice and exposure. You can start to do this by changing your behaviour, and acting as if you are comfortable with uncertainty. Remember, anxiety is made up of thoughts, feelings and behaviours… and if you can change one of those things, the others will often follow. Here are a few things you could try:

  • Resist the urge to obsessively plan for the “perfect” birth. Research suggests that mothers who have strict birth plans may be more at risk of Perinatal Anxiety than those who do not – possibly because expectations and experiences can often be quite different. Instead, consider having some wiggle room in your plans… of course, find out about the options available to you, but maybe decide to let go of any rigid plans you may have, and allow room for some flexibility and uncertainty. So try to be open minded. At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is that you have a healthy baby at the end of it – no matter whether you did or did not need pain relief or medical intervention.
  • Rather than constantly contacting your healthcare provider for information, try to restrict the contact with them to times when your situation has changed (i.e. if you develop new symptoms, or if the baby’s movements change). If you don’t have anything new to tell your midwife or GP, they are unlikely to give you any new information.
  • Avoid spending lots of time online, searching for information about pregnancy and childbirth. While some information is helpful, there is a lot of conflicting and extreme information available online, which is unlikely to be helpful.
  • Instead of preparing everything yourself – let your partner, or a family member choose some of the baby’s clothes, or furniture.

Unrealistic Expectations

Our research has found that holding unrealistic expectations about childbirth and parenthood can be a significant trigger for anxiety in the perinatal period. High expectations for motherhood and rigid ideas about birth and parenting can lead to unnecessary anxiety when things don’t go as planned; and can leave you feeling anxious and as if you have done something wrong – when you haven’t!

The transition to parenthood is full of uncertainty and unpredictability, making it difficult for events to unfold in the exact manner that you might be hoping for or expecting. And unfortunately, many of us are really hard on ourselves when our reality does not match up to what we were expecting… and this can lead to feelings of anxiety.

There are two key ways in which we can tackle this issue:

  • Adjust our expectations
  • Be kinder to ourselves when things don’t go according to plan

Adjusting unrealistic expectations

Let’s start by having a look at your expectations and asking yourself whether or not they are likely to be helpful or reasonable.

 

If any of these expectation patterns look familiar, it might be time to consider adjusting your expectations to allow room for more flexibility. Try to be realistic in your expectations; or keep your expectations more open. This can really impact your wellbeing, as research suggests that people with these types of expectations may be more likely to feel irritable and anxious, even after doing what they can to try to meet their expectations (which can often be stressful in of itself).

Be kind to yourself

Whatever your expectations are, it is difficult (if not impossible) to be fully prepared for how unpredictable labour and parenthood can be… so it is important to try to be pragmatic and realistic when possible. And if your experience doesn’t quite match up to the expectations that you help, remember to be kind to yourself.

Pregnancy and parenthood is challenging; and most of us are just muddling through the best we can. We all have our ups and down, and sometimes things go to plan, but often they don’t. So if things don’t go as you hoped – try to practice some self-compassion.

People who feel anxious can often be quite self-critical. And we are usually much harder on ourselves than we would ever be with anyone else. So next time you find yourself berating yourself for something, try to turn that critical self-talk around. Imagine what you might say to someone else who was in your shoes, and turn that comment back on yourself. It will almost certainly be more compassionate.

Let’s look at some examples of how we can turn self-criticism into self-compassion.

Critical Talk Compassionate Talk
I’m useless. I feel hugely underprepared… there are so many things I don’t know about how to raise child. This is normal – you can never know everything about parenting.  Being a mum is a constant learning experience.
I’m so pathetic for feeling overwhelmed about becoming a parent. Being a parent is a lot of responsibility, it’s perfectly normal to feel daunted about it all.
I’ve done a lot of stupid and irresponsible things in the past.  I’ll never be a good mum. Everyone has a past, and everyone has weaknesses. I need to remember that I also have a lot of really good qualities. There is no such thing as a perfect mum.
I’m such an idiot.  I keep getting things wrong. Everyone makes mistakes; what counts is what I take away from this experience. Making mistakes has nothing to do with my intelligence, or ability as a mother.

 

Look after yourself and seek help, if you need it.