Uncertainty is part of the human experience. Some people thrive in uncertain times; others become emotionally paralyzed. The way people respond to uncertainty may depend on how afraid they are of the unknown.

If you fear spiders or snakes, it’s based on what you’ve learned: Some of these creatures are venomous and can literally kill you. But not all fears are based on such concrete information.

Some fears are based on what you don’t know.

Take Wall Street, for example. Stock prices plunge when investors fear that an event will hurt the economy. A more personal example? The fear of public speaking. Part of the terror many people feel onstage is not knowing how the audience will respond.

Fear of the unknown is a basic part of many other anxieties, fears, and phobias. In this article, we’ll explore common symptoms, who’s at risk, and how to overcome your fear.

The psychological term for fear of the unknown is “xenophobia.” In modern usage, the word has evolved to mean the fear of strangers or foreigners — but its original meaning is much broader. It includes anything or anyone that’s unfamiliar or unknown.

Researchers define fear of the unknown as the tendency to be afraid of something you have no information about on any level. For some people, fearing the unknown can go a step further.

If you feel intensely upset and anxious when you encounter an unknown or unfamiliar situation, you may have developed a state of mind called “intolerance of uncertainty.” This means uncertain circumstances feel unbearable to you.

The effects of fear on the body are well known. They include:

  • fast heart rate
  • quick, shallow breathing
  • tense muscles
  • feelings of weakness
  • blood glucose (sugar) spikes

When a threat is short-lived, these symptoms go away quickly. If you feel a near-constant fear of the unknown, though, it could harm your health.

If you’re prone to worrying about the unknown, you may have developed a habit of catastrophizing, or imagining worst-case scenarios. Catastrophizing is known as a cognitive distortion. This is a way of thinking that creates an inaccurate view of reality.

Lack of predictability

Feeling that you don’t have enough information to make accurate predictions can cause your anxiety to rise. One way to counteract the lack of predictability is to get more information.

For example, if you’re experiencing fear of the unknown related to a new school or neighborhood, you might consider exploring the area before your move. You can make in-person or online scouting expeditions to find out more about what your new life will be like.

Lack of control

Feeling that you can’t control your circumstances is sure to cause your anxiety level to rise. Age and disability can both decrease your sense of agency (the belief that you can take charge of your own life).

To reclaim your sense of agency, you can start by analyzing your circumstances and listing the things you can and cannot control. You can decrease uncertainty by making a plan that includes steps you can take in areas within your control.

Although anyone can develop a fear of the unknown, behavioral scientists have found that some groups of people may be particularly vulnerable to this kind of anxiety. Those individuals include people with:

Anxiety and fear disorders

If you have a fear disorder, you may be more susceptible to the fear of the unknown.

In a 2016 study, researchers tested the startle reflex by subjecting 160 adults to unpredictable sounds and shocks. They found that those with social anxiety disorder and specific phobias blinked more and harder when they were anticipating an unknown, unpleasant experience.

This led researchers to conclude that these individuals were more sensitive to anxiety about the unknown. Children with anxiety disorders seem to be particularly vulnerable.

Depression

People with depression feel more anxious about uncertainty than people who don’t have depression.

But some psychologists question the connection between fear of the unknown and depression, because depression is viewed as a sense of certainty. The feeling of hopelessness, for example, comes from the idea that it is certain nothing good is on the way.

Some psychologists think it’s more likely that the fear of the unknown among people with depression comes from the anxiety that goes along with major depression.

Alcohol use disorder

There appears to be a link between fear of the unknown and alcohol use disorder. In another 2016 study, researchers used the same experimental conditions (predictable and unpredictable electric shocks) and found that study participants with a history of problematic alcohol use were extrasensitive to the uncertainty.

They concluded people might be using alcohol as a way to cope with fear of the unknown.

Disordered eating

Psychologists have studied intolerance for uncertainty in people with eating disorders. What they’ve found is that people with eating disorders tend to feel quite anxious when thinking about the unknowns in the future.

In a 2017 study, this anxiety was strongest in people who were more introverted and less secure in their ability to connect with other people.

Feeling anxious about the unknown? Put down your phone for a while.

In a 2017 meta-analysis, researchers found a potential link between rising intolerance for uncertainty and rising cell phone and internet use.

It seems that people use their phones as a constant source of reassurance throughout the day. Over time, this habit may reduce your tolerance for ordinary uncertainties, causing fear of the unknown to build up.

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Obsessive compulsive disorder

Intolerance of uncertainty is a common anxiety for people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

In a 2013 study, 603 study participants with OCD answered questions about their symptoms. Intolerance of uncertainty motivated four of the symptoms they reported:

  • ordering and arranging
  • checking and rechecking
  • washing
  • avoiding contamination

Hoarding disorder

People who feel compelled to collect possessions may be doing so as a response to fear of the unknown. Scientists have studied people with hoarding disorder and found an increased intolerance for uncertainty.

In a 2019 study, 57 people with hoarding disorder completed group therapy sessions. Researchers found that when therapists addressed the intolerance for uncertainty, treatment outcomes improved.

A special case: Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder

In a 2016 study, researchers found a link between parenting a child with autism spectrum disorder and intolerance of uncertainty.

In addition, in a 2015 study, 50 mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder ranked themselves on scales that measured anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty. Researchers observed both anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty among these mothers.

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1. Question your assumptions

If you experience fear of the unknown, take time to examine what beliefs you hold. Then ask yourself a few questions:

  • To what extent are your beliefs logical?
  • Have you adopted any cognitive distortions in order to survive past difficulties?
  • Are those cognitive distortions hindering you now?

2. Do your research

You may be able to shrink your fear of the unknown by increasing what you know. Armed with more information, you may find it easier to make decisions.

This step is particularly important if you experience fear of the unknown related to your finances. It may be scary to look bills and budgets squarely in the eye, but doing so will empower you to make better decisions.

3. Stay grounded in the here and now

You can take actions today to reduce the possibility of a negative outcome down the road. By listing factors within your control and then taking one small step each day, you can shore up your sense of responsibility and control over your life.

4. Manage stress with a healthy lifestyle

These factors can all increase your capacity to deal with the stress that comes from uncertainty:

To the extent that you can, practice good self-care when you’re facing frightening unknowns.

5. Talk to someone you trust

A therapist may be able to help you process your fear of the unknown and devise strategies to reframe your thinking patterns in helpful ways. If now isn’t the right time for you to try therapy, talk to a trusted friend or write down your concerns in a private journal.

Sometimes, the act of naming your fears shrinks them down to size.

Fear of the unknown is the tendency to be afraid when you have no information on any level about something you face. It can escalate into an intolerance of uncertainty.

Some people are more likely to experience fear of the unknown, including people with:

  • anxiety and mood disorder
  • eating disorder
  • hoarding disorder
  • alcohol use disorder
  • OCD

To manage the fear, you can identify areas within your control, make a step-by-step plan, practice mindfulness to ground yourself in the present, or talk to someone you trust.

A healthy lifestyle can give you the strength and clarity of mind necessary to thrive in the midst of uncertainty.