A common symptom of anxiety or OCD is a need for information and knowledge, and difficulty coping with uncertainty or ambiguity.

When things are unclear, unpredictable, or unknown, sometimes we cope with anxiety about this by overanalyzing things, doing tons of research before making a decision (or taking action), or asking others for approval or reassurance.

It can feel scary to take risks, and also to consider all the different possibilities of what might go wrong or what can happen, when we don’t have all the answers ahead of time.

In truth, we never do have complete certainty or advance knowledge of how things will turn out, and we also never have “all” the facts. Even getting approval from others, or reassurance from multiple people, doesn’t really calm us, because an overactive mind and imagination can always come up with more doubts, questions, or alternate interpretations of what the person who gave the reassurance might have meant, or misunderstood etc.

The more active one’s intellect and imagination, and the more one idealizes knowledge, approval, or answers as the keys to safety or comfort, the more one feeds the habit of overidentifying with mental activity or compulsive rituals to the exclusion of more effective and reality based ways of developing an internal sense of security (including right brain emotion regulation experiences in place of repetitive, looping left brain activity). Mental “safety behaviors” come to take the place of real life living and relational soothing and support.

If you struggle with overthinking, then being able to sacrifice the things in your mind for the stuff of real life can also be a traumatically painful type of “settling”. In one’s mind anything is possible; in real life, not everything is. There always will be that difference between the picture in our minds of how things could be, or how we might feel if we had more knowledge or more answers. Yet sacrificing abstractions, ideas, or theoretical possibilities is often necessary for making things happen in the real world so we can self-actualize, get things done, make positive changes (even if change is scary and unknown), and enjoy satisfactions in life that require risk, unpredictability, suspense, and ambiguity- like relationships, careers, etc

When we are young, we know so little, yet the things we do know get interpreted in ways that are childlike, generalized, concrete or literal, missing context, and sometimes scary or overstimulating. (And as Laplanche has informed us, some things conveyed to us in our earliest relationships leave an enigmatic trace of the adult’s unconscious communication inside of us that is necessarily “lost in translation” at such an early time).

For those of us in childhood who had bright, precocious, and perceptive minds, an active imagination, sensitive or empathic natures, and anxious temperaments, this complicated mix may have become both a blessing and a curse. (The blessing may be the stores of knowledge and mental prowess we have amassed, perceptiveness to subtle cues in others and empathy towards them, etc). Yet so much picking up on subtle cues or vibes around us, words or themes we couldn’t fully understand, or snippets of adult conversations overheard (either deliberately or unintentionally) may have also created a certain feeling of desperate tension or urgent pressure to get bound up together with a quest for knowing what we do not know or solving riddles yet unsolved.

A trauma history on top of all this has its own added complications. The fears associated with not knowing can be quite persecutory; the internal chatter can be threatening or mean. Whether it’s beating oneself up in one’s head, not being able to trust others, or worrying about getting hurt or being emotionally unsafe in some way, trauma makes learning to feel safe in the face of uncertainty and to take healthy, calculated risks in relationships and in life get derailed in the face of mental hypervigilance and self-protective avoidance.

Yet it is possible to release old fears and increase our range of options and possibilities for living more presently, getting unstuck from decision paralysis, and using others for comfort and support.

In my practice I use a combination of Psychoanalytic and CBT/exposure therapy techniques to help clients face their fears, change their relationship to their need for more certainty or “information”, and work through unconscious repetitions of what it felt like to be an anxious, sensitive child with too much information, an overload of stress or mental stimulation, and a lack of effective adult help. (This doesn’t mean one’s parents did not try, although some may have been too preoccupied with their own anxieties or stresses to notice their child’s, or may have been distracted by the child’s intelligence and precociousness to notice their fear). Being soothed in your emotions, having the complex world explained to you in ways a child’s mind could understand, and experiencing attunement and support for your fears of taking risks were real needs you may have had that did not get met when you needed it most. You may find you feel sad for the child you were and the tension you walked around with so often back then, but you will also realize that you no longer need to live in your head because now it’s finally safe “enough” to let go.