Intolerance of uncertainty

“Fear of the unknown” is a cognitive process (i.e,. having to do with thinking) that underlies anxiety disorders with uncertainty as a central feature. While fear is a present-oriented emotion, uncertainty is geared towards the future. It is a more inclusive and diverse concept which refers to any forms of unknown, including behaviors under environment with no explicit instructions.

Uncertainty is related to anxiety through intolerance of uncertainty, which is a concept defined as “cognitive, emotional, and behavioral reactions to uncertainty in everyday life situations”. Individuals with high intolerance uncertainty would find the potential future negative events unacceptable regardless of whether or not it is likely to occur. This leads to the assumption that uncertainty is specific to aversive events.

Link between anxiety and uncertainty

Research shows that intolerance uncertainty is highly related to worry, moderately related to obsessions/compulsions, and weakly related to panic sensations. This suggests that intolerance uncertainty is associated with symptom levels of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety (SA) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

The contributing factor in the relationship between uncertainty and anxiety is behavioral inhibition, or in other words uncertainty impairs our ability to prepare for a response to future events, thus resulting in increased worry, anxiety, and fear. Changing the negative beliefs about uncertainty and improving coping skills would be helpful in reducing uncertainty-related worries and fears, and hence lowering anxiety.


Gu, Y., Gu, S., Lei, Y., & Li, H. (2020). From Uncertainty to Anxiety: How Uncertainty Fuels Anxiety in a Process Mediated by Intolerance of Uncertainty. Neural plasticity2020, 8866386.


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