Intolerance of Uncertainty

Like many recovering alcoholics I know I have a real problem with “Not projecting into the future” but staying in the moment or even the day. Why is this? When I “project” or even consider a near future event I can feel distressed by it. I want to do something about it now! Not later.

The future seems to be urgently now.

I have long researched why this is? I seem to become overwhelmed at times by future tense and it is not even due to future events being that distressing in themselves. I just have this constant need to act now rather than later. I have an urgency or a negative urgency or in other words a  distress based impulsivity which prompts a desire to act now, make a decision now rather than later. I call this a compulsion to act  because a distress state compels me to make a decision to act now.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, alcoholics appear to have a bias in decision making towards choose the short term solution over a long term one, even though the long term solution will yield greater gains. There are various  theories on why this is so. Sometimes it appears like a “fight or flight” response!

My theory is that I am very poor at tolerating uncertainty and what is the future but uncertain. I have  an “unconscious” negative bias about the future, linked at times to a tendency to then catastrophize.

This intolerance of uncertainty is seen in other disorders, such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and post traumatic stress disorders as well as in eating disorders but it is rarely researched in alcoholism.

I believe when confronted with a decision about the future I often make a decision to relieve a distress which manifests as an unpleasant feeling state which compels me, via a stimulus response to act now. Distress is the stimulus, acting now is the response.

I am not saying that I have to be in a negative frame of mind for this to occur. It is simply a decision making bias I have when left to my own devices.   It is the reason I speak to others when making important decisions in life because the need to relief distress can show in the mind as a good idea when it is often on reflection not such a great idea.

This is due to distress being a stress-fuelled experience and excessive stress reduces the awareness of future consequence of a decision. It seems like a good idea at the time because it relieves distress. To the brain this is a good idea.  It is a automatic response of the dorsal striatum, an implicit memory (procedural) system, that requires one to retrospectively rationalise and justify the automatic responding of this area of the brain, it justifies a previous action in other words, thus a decision is represented in the mind as a good idea, what was most urgently required!

These rationalisations and justifications through time can become automatic schemas and are automatically activated following a compulsive response. Some of us are probably familiar with these schemas being a big part of our alcohol and drug use. As we needed to use, we had automatic addiction schemas following shortly after our decisions to head to the pub or to score some drugs or even to propel some decisions, as the consequence of distress states. It is these habitual response, based on distress states which bias decisions making to acting now, even in recovery.

I came across an article (1) which looked at this intolerance of uncertainty in relation to decision making and came up with similar conclusions to the above. “high IU (intolerance of uncertainty) predicted shorter wait times and more frequent selection of the immediate, less valuable (and riskier) reward. We take this tendency as evidence that IU was associated with an aversion to waiting in a state of uncertainty. One might argue that choices for the more immediate, less valuable reward might reflect an aversion to waiting per se…, the delay associated with the more valuable reward in the
current study appears to have magnified the unpleasant affective responses to uncertainty… delay is provoking unpleasant affective responses, choices for the smaller, immediate reward can be seen as avoidance of distress.” Decisions are thus like an “escape route” and more based on emotional avoidance.  “That is, the affective consequences of uncertainty may play a more central role in determining behavior than uncertainty itself…decision  making tendencies among those high in IU may be maintained through negative reinforcement…to  reduce or eliminate affectively unpleasant circumstances that accompany waiting in uncertainty.”

These “unpleasant affective responses” are distress based and lead to a negative urgency to act now.


1. Luhmann, C. C., Ishida, K., & Hajcak, G. (2011). Intolerance of uncertainty and decisions about delayed, probabilistic rewards. Behavior therapy42(3), 378-386.





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