The Atlantic

How Uncertainty Fuels Anxiety

An inability to live with life's unknowns can lead to worry and distress.
Source: Ben Margot / AP

After nine years writing Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice column, Emily Yoffe has noticed some recurring themes: “Mothers in law, husbands addicted to porn, impossible officemates, crazy brides.”

Sometimes, Yoffe says, letter-writers say they’re prepared to abide by her advice, whatever it is. “I have people writing to me, saying ‘I thought we wanted three children, but I realized I’m happy with two. My spouse wants another. What do you think?’ What do I think? You know this is not an issue for me to decide, right?”

But decide she does, and people keep asking her to weigh in on their anxiety-inducing decisions, big and small, from planning for the end of life, to when to let a daughter shave her legs.

The advice-seekers want a neutral third-party, one they trust, to arbitrate the conflicts of their lives. The letters often end with questions—how can I get over this? What should I tell her? Am I making the right choice?—that boil down to the universal “What should I do?”

Once they have an answer, they can act, see what happens, and stop living in anxious anticipation. Because it’s often

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic5 min readScience
A Breakthrough in the Mystery of Why Women Get So Many Autoimmune Diseases
About 65 million years ago, shortly after the time of the dinosaurs, a new critter popped up on the evolutionary scene. This “scampering animal,” as researchers described it, was likely small, ate bugs, and had a furry tail. It looked, according to a
The Atlantic3 min readPolitics
How Harvard Should Handle the Kyle Kashuv Mess
The university and its critics can transform this polarizing culture war controversy into a constructive moment––if both take steps to placate the other side.
The Atlantic6 min read
Kyle Kashuv Becomes a Symbol to Conservatives Who Say the Left Can’t Forgive
The 18-year-old gun-rights activist and Parkland-shooting survivor is being touted by the right as the latest victim of “cancel culture.”