The concept of uncertainty has never been spoken of or written about more than in the past month. The uncertainty prevalent around the world right now is causing tremendous anxiety for many people.
But why do we view uncertainty as such a bad thing? What is it that drives so many people to associate it with fear, negative outcomes, or anxiety, rather than with new opportunities, adventure and novelty?
Is Uncertainty Really Such a Bad Thing?
Our survival brain helps us think and plan for the future. It’s constantly updating, predicting what will happen in the future based on past experience, making judgments about what’s safe and what isn’t. If information is lacking, our survival brain lays out different scenarios about what might happen, and guesses which will be most likely.
To the survival brain, uncertainty equals danger. If your brain doesn't know what’s around the corner, it can’t keep you out of harm’s way. Your brain will do almost anything for the sake of certainty.
The majority of people struggle with uncertainty. Because uncertainty equals danger, and danger equates to fear. We need fear for survival (it helps us avoid actual danger). But when it comes to situations such as these, fear -- or uncertainty -- isn’t exactly helpful. In fact, it can do us more harm than good.
In fact, it’s resilience that is most important to our survival right now. In this current world crisis, being able to cope with ambiguity and change is the best survival mechanism. So how can we become less fearful of uncertainty and more resilient to change?
The Science of Uncertainty
All of us -- every single individual in the world -- have situations that arise in our lives that we simply cannot control. In fact, many of the outcomes we are currently experiencing due to COVID-19 embody those situations: job insecurity, health issues, schedule changes, isolation, etc.
When we lose our inner sense of control, many of us feel powerless. Panic is the natural reaction, which automatically triggers a stress response.
Scientifically speaking, what’s occurring simultaneously is that the amygdala (often referred to as our “reptilian” brain, its main purpose is to protect us from threats in our environment) perceives this loss of control as danger. It sends a message to the hypothalamus (the command center of the brain), which activates the sympathetic (also known as “fight or flight”) nervous system.
When that nervous system is turned on, it generates the production of hormones like adrenaline, which causes changes in autonomous functions like our heartbeat, body temperature and breathing.
This entire mechanism is designed for our survival and we cannot change it.
Why Is Uncertainty Perceived as Threat?
The mind is a fantastic storyteller.
Our minds form cohesive narratives out of disorienting elements all the time. To make sense of the world around us, our mind takes “facts,”-- true events that happen in the world -- creates thought processes (to add meaning to them), and comes up with its own narrative that we associate to specific emotions.These narratives represent our version of reality. It is a perception, and not necessarily reality.
We continually tell ourselves stories – of success or failure at work, our relationships, how we’re doing in life, what we can and cannot do. We constantly create these emotionally charged narratives because they provide structure and direction to our lives. Yet another survival mechanism.
But these stories themselves, much like fear and uncertainty, oftentimes do more harm than good. For many of us, the stories we tell ourselves are far from fact.
Most people’s first experience with uncertainty is often sullied with negative thought patterns. It’s something we can’t even trace back to because it happened in our most infant state. But that first twinge of uncertainty we felt also came with feelings of fear, frustration, anxiety, or worry (all negatives).
The narrative moving forward, then, that we tell ourselves is that uncertainty is a bad thing. And, since most people experience this same narrative, there’s a collective cycle of negative feelings and narratives the world over, which perpetuates fear mongering.
How to Stop the Spread (of Uncertainty)
In the same way stories can change, narratives can be changed, too. They can be managed and the cycle of uncertainty and fear can be broken. Here are steps you can take to stop the spread.
1. Shift to Acceptance
As simple as it may sound, one of the most impactful ways to becoming more resilient in a changing situation is to accept it. Resistance towards what is happening will create suffering and exhaustion. Accepting the situation for what it is allows you to be solution-oriented and positive. Think of it like quicksand. The worst thing you can do when you get stuck in quicksand is to fight it; your best method of survival is remaining calm, accepting things as they are. Resisting the situation will exhaust you and keep you stuck, but accepting it will allow you to mobilize your energy into solutions.
2. Change Your Narrative
Stories provide structure and direction. But often, they can be distorted. The way we tell ourselves stories can transform our lives, for better or worse. In times of uncertainty specifically, there is so much opportunity to transform our story. It’s in the uncertainty and the unknowable that you can create something entirely new, something you never thought achievable. You can either tell the story of how this pandemic ruined your life, or you can tell a story about how the challenge that you’re currently facing helped you learn and grow. You can see these times as dark times, or as opportunities.
3. Don’t Contract the COVID Fear
Because of the nature of the current situation, you and your neighbor, and the rest of the world, is up against the same thing. The collective energy is negative and, therefore, dragging you down. While you’re part of all that’s happening in the world right now, it’s important to remember that you are also an independent individual. You don’t have to be part of the collective, fearful energy. Instead, choose to see it, witness it, accept it, but detach yourself from the negativity and fear.
4. What’s Important to You? Focus on That
In times of change, there is opportunity to consider who you would like to be. What’s really important to you? What are your values? What do you want to achieve during your time on earth? These times of breakdown are just that: a breaking down of structure to clear the way for something new. Things get shaken up and things may appear worse than before, but things are broken down to be rebuilt, better. Ask yourself what it is that you would prefer to embody and reflect to the world. Then, your thoughts, actions, words, and life will slowly start to align with that. This will not only make you feel better, but will also have a positive impact on those around you.
For more tips on handling uncertainty and the science behind it, check out the Facebook Live event we hosted with Dr. Simon Marshall below.