“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.” ~John Allen Paulos
As a Clinical Psychologist I work with anxiety, stress and worry on an almost daily basis, but the latest economic downturn has shifted the focus of my work and now more than ever I find my diary punctuated by clients experiencing significant job related stress, financial worry and dealing with uncertainty about the future. There is a sense that the ground is no longer solid beneath us, that an industry that we all thought would sustain us, no longer offers the job security that we had come to believe it would.
In this uncertain time, symptoms of physical and psychological pain that were previously controlled or lying dormant are erupting. Admittedly for most of us uncertainty is uncomfortable and it can be especially difficult to deal with when the situation is significant to us. Uncertainty makes us feel vulnerable and it is distressing, so we try to escape, control or eliminate it any way we can. Sometimes we even settle for misinformation or bad news over uncertainty.
As a species we are wired to seek certainty and avoid uncertainty. Researchers have found that uncertainty activates a part of our brain called the amygdala, the region in our brain that also gets triggered by fear or threat. At the same time ambiguity also leads to decreased activity in the striatal system, which responds to potential rewards. In other words, we not only shy away from uncertainty but also crave certainty.
In a recent study, subjects brains were imaged as they were asked to make increasingly uncertain decisions. The researchers found that the less information the subjects had to go on, the more irrational and erratic their decisions became. This may seem counterintuitive, and you might have predicted that the less information we have, the more careful and rational we are in evaluating the validity of that information. Not so. As the uncertainty of the scenarios increased, the subjects’ brains shifted control over to the limbic system, the place where emotions, such as anxiety and fear, are generated.
Science shows us that as we face uncertainty, our brains push us to react emotionally. People who are successful in managing uncertainty are able to override this mechanism and shift their thinking in a rational direction.
People vary in their ability to tolerate uncertainty. Whilst some people function well with having a lot of uncertainty in their lives, others struggle with even a small amount of uncertainty and will often try to plan and prepare for everything as a way of avoiding or eliminating it. Being intolerant of uncertainty however can cause problems, since it leads to a lot of time-consuming and tiring behaviours, causes further stress and anxiety, and is the major fuel for worry.
Many people believe that worrying is a way of preparing yourself for the worst and gaining control over uncertainty. Worrying is seen as a way of attempting to predict what will happen in the future, prepare for it, and ultimately reduce the uncertainty. Because worrying reduces your perception of uncertainty our belief that this is a useful and helpful strategy is reinforced. Ultimately worrying helps you to believe that you have more control. In reality, has your worrying made anything more certain or more predictable? By worrying, does it change the outcome of what will happen? Perhaps it is really only your perception that has changed.
If you are one of those people who struggle to deal with uncertainty well and find yourself doing everything you can to regain some control and eliminate ambiguity, you may have noticed the flaw in your plan. It is in fact impossible to eliminate uncertainty in life.
Yet it really is possible to thrive amid uncertainty. It's not about finding the answers you can trust; it is about faith and trust in yourself -- believing that whatever happens, you will find a way through it. Without uncertainty we would never take risks, we would never feel the exhilaration of a blank page, we would never enjoy surprise. It is important to remember that as uncomfortable as these periods are they can give rise to life's most important adventures.
Quiet the Limbic System
The limbic system responds to uncertainty with an automatic fear reaction, and we know that fear not only feels uncomfortable but it inhibits decision-making. To successfully deal with uncertainty we need to become aware of this automatic biological process and our emotional reaction to the situation, label our emotions and ultimately shift arousal from our limbic system to our prefrontal cortex where more rational decisions can be made. Simply put by consciously recognizing our emotions we can reduce their impact. To employ this when facing uncertainty all you have to remember to do is bring awareness to the different fear and vulnerability emotions that you are experiencing and describe these emotions in just one or two words, thereby reducing the emotion and quieting the limbic system. Methods such as mindfulness are ahead of the game on this one as labelling is one of the fundamental tools mindfulness employs.
Acknowledge the knows and the unknowns
We all like to feel in control. But this desire for control can backfire when you perceive everything that you cannot control as a potential source of vulnerability. Those who excel at managing uncertainty embrace the control that they do have in the process through which they reach their decisions. They also however embrace that which they have no control over and acknowledge and share this with those around them. These are the people who step up and say “Here is what is uncertain to me. I am moving forward based on what I do know and what I can control. I may make mistakes but I am making the best possible decision based on what I know at this moment. I know that I have the capacity to manage the fallout from my mistakes should I need to.”
Consider the idea of permanent uncertainty
Certainty is an illusion. Has there ever truly been a time when you knew with absolute certainty how things would unfold? Take a moment to let this thought sink in. Even with the best preparation, you cannot control everything. Job security is subject to industry shifts, financial security changes with the state of the economy, and relationships transform as people grow and change. The reality is that there are never any guarantees, even when you think that there are. When you acknowledge the reality that you do not know what the future holds, you can begin grounding yourself in the here and now, dealing with life as it always has been: yours to live and create moment by moment, day by day.
Accept constant imperfection
As the inspirational author Brene Brown says “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life.” In striving for constant control and perfectionism we believe we can avoid or minimize painful or uncomfortable feelings. If ever you think you’ve created a controllable, predictable life for yourself, you can rest assured that is an illusion. This struggle for perfection, control and certainty in itself is destructive because there is no such thing as a perfect and certain future; it is an unobtainable goal that you are striving for. When perfection is your goal, you are always left with a sense of failure, and spend much of your valuable time lamenting what you failed to accomplish and what you might have done differently, instead of enjoying what you were able to achieve. If however we are able to bring some acceptance to the understanding that neither ourselves, nor our lives, nor our futures will be perfect we are able to better embrace the present moment and accept uncertainty. Inevitably in the future we will gain, loose, grow, shrink, smile and cry. You will manage them all in the future, because you have managed them all in the past. It is your choice to make; you can let uncertainty keep you up at night, obsessing over ways to protect yourself from anything that might go wrong, or you can use it to motivate yourself to practice acceptance, live in the moment, and embrace the adventure of living.
Uncertainty is a necessary part of getting where we want to go. The expertise required to strategically manage uncertainty are amongst the most powerful skills you can cultivate in an increasingly uncertain world. There are two common denominators to these strategies for dealing with uncertainty. All of them remind us, in times when the economy makes us feel powerless, that there are things we can do to help ourselves. And none of them cost any money.