How worry changes how tolerant of uncertainty we are ...

How worrying changes our intolerance of uncertainty

worry and uncertainty

77% of the population worry daily

Previous research has found that approximately 77% of the population worries about an average of three things on a daily basis. However, 2% of the population has been found to have excessive and uncontrollable worrying, to the extent that it harms their health. Excessive worrying is a primary feature of Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

The most frequent worry for the vast majority of people centres around interpersonal relationships.

Worry refers to a chain of thoughts and images which are negative and can feel relatively uncontrollable.

A new study

A new study has been looking at the connection between worry and intolerance of uncertainty.

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Intolerance of uncertainty

Intolerance of uncertainty is a phenomenon which arises from a set of negative beliefs about uncertainty and its implications and consequences. Intolerance of uncertainty has at its core a set of evaluations and beliefs that include “uncertainty is dangerous”, “I can’t cope with uncertainty” and “uncertainty makes me feel bad”.


People who have high levels of intolerance of uncertainty tend to become distressed in ambiguous or uncertain situations and contexts and, as a result, usually start a negative spiral thinking around “what if…”.


Additionally, previous studies have found that intolerance of uncertainty frequently leads to people viewing problems from a negative perspective and have heightened fear responses, such as avoidance, freezing and aggression in uncertain and ambiguous situations and contexts.

Types of worry

Previous studies have found that there is a typology to worry:


  1. Type I worry – worries
  2. Type II worry – appraisals of worrying


Type I worries tend to be triggered as a response to an anxiety about something and tend to be associated with what are known as positive consequences of worry (or PCOW) or a belief that worrying will in some way help to solve the issue or problem.

Type II worries tend to occur as a result of having a type I worry and then starting to worry about worrying. These are known as negative consequences of worry (NCOW), whereby an individual starts to become concerned that their worrying will lead to negative consequences such as ill health.


It has been found that type II worries tend to occur in people who want to take control of their worrying, however, paradoxically, in trying to do so they make the situation worse and often end up in what is known as negative rumination or pervasive continual negative thought patterns. These pervasive continual negative thought patterns result in a negative emotional spiral.


Using a random controlled trial methodology against a control group the researchers from the University of Derby and the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom found that worrying significantly increases both the positive consequences of worry and negative consequences of worry.


Secondly, the study found that there is a strong and significant correlation between worry and intolerance of uncertainty and this relationship goes both ways. In other words, people with higher levels of intolerance of uncertainty tend to worry more and people who tend to worry (both type I and type II worries) tend to have significantly higher levels of intolerance to uncertainty.


Further, study found that the more frequently an individual worries about anything the more this has a negative impact on their beliefs about worrying. As a result, worriers often get caught in a cycle, or sometimes a downward spiral, of worry.


This study is interesting because it is the first recorded research that shows a direct causal link between worrying and intolerance of uncertainty. Additionally, the finding that this causal relationship is bidirectional is also important, because it shows that either condition (worry or intolerance of uncertainty) is likely to set off the other condition.


The researchers suggest that, rather than seeing worry and intolerance of uncertainty as different constructs, more likely they are part of a ‘cascade’ that involves an individual’s perceptions, cognitions or thinking, behavioural patterns and emotional habits and beliefs about adaptability, flexibility, problem-solving and uncertainty.


Britton, G. I., Neale, S. E., & Davey, G. C. (2019). The effect of worrying on intolerance of uncertainty and positive and negative beliefs about worry. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry62, 65-71.

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page