Experiments dating back to the 1960s show people have less of a reaction to viewing an unpleasant image or experiencing an electric shock when they know it's coming than when they're not expecting it. That's because uncertainty, a long-known cause of anxiety, makes it difficult to prepare for events or to control them.
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People vary in their desire to minimise uncertainty. Those who react by worrying focus on potential threats and risks such as "what if I don't get the promotion?" or "what if I get sick?". Worry can be useful when it leads to adaptive behaviours that reduce threat, but chronic worry may cause harmful levels of stress that can affect heart health and the functioning of the immune system, among other things.
Our bodies may display subtle reactions to uncertainty, which we may not notice. One experiment showed people who dislike uncertainty had increased blood pressure when anticipating threat. When our bodily reaction is a strong one, we tend to recognise and label it as anxiety, but when it's more subtle, we often fail to see it despite its effect.
These internal reactions to uncertainty are normal, but they can lead us to act in impulsive ways that undermine our self-confidence, so it's important to become aware of them.
Not all bad
Dislike of uncertainty is associated with a number of mental health issues including eating disorders, social anxiety, anxiety disorders and depression. And people who say they dislike it immensely report more of these disorders occurring at the same time.
But not everything about uncertainty is bad news; while it can make negative events worse, uncertainty also makes positive events more exciting.
In an experiment about the contribution of uncertainty to romantic attraction, a group of female university students were told that attractive males had seen their profile and may or may not have liked them. Meanwhile, a second group was told the attractive males had definitely liked them. The women who were not certain about whether they were liked were more attracted to the men than those certain about being liked.
Difficulties arise when our responses to uncertainty are inflexible and rely on attempts to control it. The more we try to avoid the distress uncertainty brings, the less we're able to develop the ability to effectively handle uncertain situations. And if we choose to focus on avoiding distress, we may not stretch ourselves by trying out new activities, for instance, or speaking to new people. This reaction can prevent us from having positive experiences that build our self-confidence.
Indeed, rigidity, which is the opposite of flexibility, underlies unhealthy responses to many psychological problems. We know this from psychological research in thinking styles and perfectionism. As life is never perfect, we need to be at ease with making mistakes, learning from them and lowering or changing our goals when they are thwarted. People who are flexible tend to be more willing to reflect on disappointments, access appropriate emotional support and be less self-critical.
Many of us struggle with uncertainty, so here are a few things you can do to help manage it.
1) Decide whether an issue is important. Most people feel vulnerable when faced with a threat to their health, for instance, or a big event such as the sale of their house. But, sometimes a bodily reaction to uncertainty will be triggered in less obvious circumstances. Work, finances, competition, parenting and friendships all have potential to spark discomfort, tension and other negative feelings.
2) Take action when your uncertainty reaction has been triggered and recognise its effect on your body. If it's causing anxiety, do a short meditation. This may not only be of immediate help but will also assist by making you mindful of how your body reacts to uncertainty. Ultimately, it might help you tolerate feelings of uncertainty rather than spend time on fruitless worry.
3) Recognise thought errors that try to pull you into worry. "Catastrophising", for instance, is the tendency our minds have to exaggerate all the things that could go wrong. Once we recognise this human tendency, we can learn to challenge or even ignore our worries.
4) Don't get taken for a ride by an uncertain situation or your reaction to it. Allow yourself to have negative feelings; they are normal after all. If you need to, talk to someone about your concerns and come back to your own ability to withstand disappointment.
Picture: Nicu Buculei
Sitting with uncertainty requires patience. In order to build patience, you may need to set a realistic time frame on when the current situation will be resolved and postpone thoughts about it until that time has elapsed. In the meantime, absorb yourself in an activity that you enjoy or that has the power to distract you.
5) If the uncertainty resolves and you do experience a major disappointment, open up to trusted others. Allow yourself to reflect on what this means to you. The more we open up and talk with others, the more emotions disperse (slowly but surely). The process of reflection and allowing feelings is different to indulging worries about uncertainty.
Being open to this process allows us to adjust our expectations and move our energy and goals to areas where our expectations can be met. If a promotion at work does not come through, for instance, you may choose to put time into a sport or music, which you may not previously had time to prioritise.
Uncertainty is a part of life and it can't be avoided. The best way to deal with it is to learn techniques that help you live with it, without the accompanying worry.
Danielle Einstein is Postdoctoral Fellow and Clinical Psychologist, Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University.