The world is in the grips of a global pandemic. We are living in extremely uncertain times, and that uncertainty can be difficult to cope with.
You may feel worried right now, or are struggling to keep anxious thoughts in check. You may even feel unsure about the future. But help is at hand; you CAN learn to live with uncertainty.
Facing Uncertainty is Scarier than Facing Physical Pain
A 2016 study* by a group of researchers in London England, shows that the uncertainty of something bad happening can be more stressful than the knowledge that something bad will definitely happen.
In this study, the researchers explored how people react to being told they will “definitely” receive a painful electric shock as opposed to “probably” receive a painful electric shock. They discovered an intriguing paradox:
Volunteers who knew they would definitely receive a shock felt calmer and were measurably less agitated than those who were told they had a 50 / 50 chance of receiving the electric shock.
How The Study Worked
Researchers recruited 45 volunteers to play a computer game in which they turned over digital rocks that might have snakes hiding underneath. Throughout the game, they had to guess which rocks concealed a snake. When a snake appeared, they received a mild but painful electric shock on the hand.
Over the course of the game they got better at predicting which rocks had snakes hidden under them however, the game was designed to keep changing the odds of success to maintain ongoing uncertainty. And when we’re facing outcomes imbued with uncertainty, it’s the fact that something bad might happen that gets us.
The volunteers’ level of uncertainty correlated to their level of stress. If they felt “certain” they would find a snake, stress levels were significantly lower than if they felt they “might” find a snake. In both cases, they would get a shock, but their stress was loaded with added uncertainty.
Archy de Berker from the UCL Institute of Neurology said: “Our experiment allows us to draw conclusions about the effect of uncertainty on stress. It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t.”
Uncertainty Ignites our Primitive Survival Instinct
If we can’t neutralize a perceived threat, we engage in the unhelpful process of “worry”. We grapple with the problem in the hopes of finding solutions to the threat, but there are none.
Does this make us feel better? No, of course it doesn’t; it makes us feel worse.
In our need for certainty, we are wired to catastrophize. We view, or talk about a situation as if it is worse than it actually is. This leads to worry, which in turn leads to anxiety. The modern brain struggles to distinguish between real threat and perceived threat. The result is that the primitive brain takes over and triggers the primitive survival instinct of fight-or-flight.
It asks questions such as, What is going to happen…? What is around the corner for me…? Should I be doing more…? Should I be doing less…? What if my business is threatened…? What if my livelihood is threatened…? What if my life is threatened…?
The lack of answers can lead to anger, aggression and frustration.
What Can we do to Mitigate Uncertainty?
There are a number of things we can do to lessen the effects of uncertainty:
• Awareness is your superpower – be aware of your feelings and emotions.
• Notice the “worry story” you are telling yourself – try to distance yourself from it.
• Focus on breathing – long slow breaths.
• Recognize the need to rise above fight-or-flight.
• Accept uncertainty – allow yourself to stop the struggle.
Stand up to Anxiety with Some Mood-Boosters
• Movement and exercise.
• Meditation or self-hypnosis.
• Achievement-oriented activities.
• Something pleasant or fun.
Just 15 minutes a day, focusing on yourself, will help you regain a sense of balance.
Remember to be patient with yourself. It may take some time before you start to notice results. The more you practice these strategies, the better you will become!
I have recorded a short 15-minute body scan to help bring your focus back into your body, and ultimately send waves of joy out to all who may need it at this time. Click here to listen to the recording.
* Link to research on uncertainty: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/04/uncertainty-stressful-research-neuroscience