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

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