Most of us are creatures of habit. When things go as planned, we feel in control. But when life throws a curveball, we experience heightened anxiety and stress. Fear is not new; nor is danger. But new research shows that how we handle uncertainty has a significant impact on our physical and mental health.
By itself, uncertainty isn’t necessarily a problem. When we are mentally and emotionally "in shape," the brain is pretty good at managing stress. This is partially due to its ability to predict even abstract circumstances and prepare for them. However, over time, the brain can get stuck in “fight-or-flight” mode, which makes any potential outcome seem like a threat. This in turn triggers anxiety which takes a massive toll on our mental and physical health.
The stress of uncertainty typically peaks when there is a 50/50 chance of a bad outcome. Research shows that job uncertainty, for example, tends to take a more significant toll on our health than actually losing our job. Waiting for health test results is often much more stressful than receiving a bad diagnosis.
A study conducted by researchers at University College London found that uncertainty is more stressful than an expected painful outcome. Participants in this study played a computer game during which they had to guess if there was a snake under a rock they then had to turn over. When there was a snake, they received a painful electric shock. The game continuously changed to keep a level of uncertainty throughout. A few participants were told which rocks were hiding a snake and therefore knew beforehand when they would receive an electric shock.
The main finding was that all measures of stress maxed out when uncertainty was highest. When people had a 50/50 chance of being shocked, stress levels peaked – even beyond a 100% chance of receiving the most intense electrical shock.
The brain is wired to treat uncertainty as a threat. And, neuroscientists know that uncertainty is more stressful than knowing something bad is definitely going to happen.
The last few years have been a whirlwind of unpredictable and uncontrollable events. The pandemic combined with social, political and economic unrest have contributed to increased uncertainty and stress. Over time, the brain’s incredible cognitive ability begins to work against itself. It loses perspective and begins to imagine more exaggerated situations with more dire consequences.
This vicious loop of constantly accumulating anxiety and stress ultimately impacts our happiness as well as the compassion we feel for others. Chronic stress depresses the immune system and increases the risk of several types of illnesses making you more susceptible to viral illnesses including respiratory conditions like colds, flu, as well as cardiovascular disease.
When we feel uncertain, it’s human nature to try to regain control. The problem is that we often don’t do our best thinking in stressful times and we tend to focus on controlling the wrong things:
Food: In times of crises, one of the first personal behaviors to change is eating habits –eating too much, not eating enough, or binging on empty calories.
Possessions: Hoarding toilet paper might make us feel more in control, more prepared, but it doesn’t make us safer.
Numbing agents: online alcohol sales during March 2020 grew by 234% as compared to the same month in the preceding year (Nielsen, 2020).
The key is to regain control in ways that – intellectually – we know will make us stronger not just give us an emotional hideout. There is a wealth of research showing that some of the same strategies proven to reduce stress also strengthen the immune system. Here are five choices you can make each day to give your emotional and physical health a boost:
Engage in self-care. Don’t let stress derail your healthy routines. Some people are stress-eaters, others are stress-drinkers. Some can't sleep, others find it hard to get out of bed. Make efforts to eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep.
Be kind to yourself. Some people are better at dealing with uncertainties than others. Don’t beat yourself up if your stress of uncertainty impacts you with more force than a friend’s. Remind yourself that it might take time for the stressful situation to resolve, and be patient with yourself in the meantime.
Create a new routines. Try to establish a consistent sleep pattern to give your worried brain an opportunity for restful sleep. Schedule time for a physical activity even if it’s just a walk around the block. Add relaxation events to the calendar such as 30 minutes of reading time or gardening. The more unstructured blocks of time we have, the harder it is to focus. Creating and maintaining a daily routine can help create a sense of normalcy and certainty.
Reflect on past successes. Chances are you’ve overcome stressful events in the past—and you survived! Remember those wins and give yourself credit. Reflect on how you got through the difficulty and what you might bring from that old experience to this one.
Give your worried brain a rest. Be intentional about giving your brain a few minutes each day to rest. Push the anxiety aside for 30 minutes to garden, read, listen to music, whatever works for you. Mindfulness is a great way to regain a sense of calm and control. Mindlessness – giving yourself permission to turn off your thought stream for a few minutes is also a great way to manage the worry.