The world is currently in the grip of a global pandemic but even without this, we are often faced with uncertainty.
We are living in extremely uncertain times – and that uncertainty can be difficult to cope with. You may feel worried right now. You may struggle to keep anxious thoughts in check. And you may 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 new study shows that the uncertainty of something bad happening can be more stressful than the knowledge of something had happening. In 2016, a group of London researchers explored how people react to being told they will either “definitely” or “probably” receive a painful electric shock. They discovered an intriguing paradox. Volunteers who knew they would definitely receive a painful electric shock felt calmer and were measurably less agitated than those who were told they only had a 50 percent chance of receiving the electric shock.
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 whether each rock 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 about predicting under which rocks they’d find snakes, but 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. So, if someone felt “certain” he or she would find a snake, stress levels were significantly lower than if they felt that maybe they would find a snake. In both cases, they’d 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 neutralise a perceived threat, we engage in the unhelpful process called “worry”. We grapple with whatever the problem is to find 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 “catastrophise” – we view or talk of a situation as 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 – fight-or-flight.
It asks questions: 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, frustration, fear, panic.
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
• Focus on breathing – long slow breaths
• Recognise the need to rise above fight-or-flight
• Accept uncertainty – allow yourself to stop the struggle
Stand up to Anxiety with Some Mood-Boosters
• Exercise and movement
• Meditation, self hypnosis
• Achievement-oriented activity
• Something pleasant or fun
Just 15 minutes a day, focussing on yourself, will help you regain a sense of balance. The more you practice all these strategies, the better you will become!
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