What Your Brain Hates But Must Face Every Day

And what you can do about it.

Posted Jun 19, 2020

“If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity.” —Eckhart Tolle

Photo by Michael Shannon on Unsplash
Uncertainty is like sulfuric acid for our "survive brain."
Source: Photo by Michael Shannon on Unsplash

Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of life. None of us knows the future, so we must live with a certain amount of it. But life’s inevitable uncertainty is like sulfuric acid for the primitive “survive brain,” saddled with the hefty responsibility to keep us safe. When it doesn’t know what’s around the corner, it can’t keep us out of harm’s way. It can go haywire when certainty is questioned instantly arousing your fight-or-flight reaction, kicking you in the pants in an attempt to spur you to action and get you to safety. If you’re intolerant of uncertainty, odds are you will have more anxiety than average and will do almost anything in your power to avoid or extinguish it. The problem is, it’s impossible to eliminate all uncertainty. To live fully, freely, and happily, we must be able to tolerate uncertainty, which bolsters our “thrive brain.”

Uncertainty Intolerance: The ‘Survive Brain’

If you have uncertainty intolerance, it can cause tremendous anxiety. Your survive brain is constantly updating your world, making judgments about what's safe and what isn't. Due to its disdain for uncertainty, it makes up all sorts of untested stories hundreds of times a day because to the mind, uncertainty equals danger. The survive brain, because it’s hard-wired with what researchers call a negativity bias, assumes the worst, over-personalizes threats, and jumps to conclusions. It overestimates threats and underestimates your ability to handle them—all in the name of survival.

Waiting in the unknown can feel like torture by a million tiny cuts. Will I contact the Coronavirus? Will the MRI reveal cancer? Will I get the job? Who’s in the house when the alarm goes off, friend or foe? Who lurks underneath the clown makeup? The ground beneath you opens up, threatening to swallow you, or so it feels. Your serenity is seriously compromised—but hey, at least you’re safe, right? Sometimes the survive brain prefers to know an outcome one way or another to take the edge off. It’s more stressful wondering if you’ll get to your meeting on time than knowing you’ll be late. It’s more anxiety-inducing to be unsure if you might get divorced than getting the divorce. And it’s more fearful not knowing if you’re going to get sacked than knowing for sure you lost your job.

A study by the Alberta Health Care system, published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research, showed that job uncertainty takes a greater toll on your health than actually losing the job. Statistics show you're more likely to maintain the stamina to continue taking risks after a car crash than after a series of psychological setbacks. A 2011 Taiwanese study found that cancer patients with an intolerance to uncertainty develop thought patterns to avoid the negative fears of the possibility of death, and they slip deeper into mental distress. British researchers at the Institute of Neurology, University College of London, showed that you’re calmer anticipating pain than anticipating uncertainty of pain. Study participants who knew for sure they would receive a painful electric shock felt calmer and less agitated than those who were told they only had a 50 percent chance of getting the electric shock.

Uncertainty Tolerance: The ‘Thrive Brain’

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, things are different, and the uncertainty of what the future holds looms, breeding unease, fear, and anxiety. But we can ask ourselves if it’s the virus that scares us or the drastic changes, the uncontrollable and the unknown that scare us. Meanwhile, once we stay informed and follow what the experts tell us, our best ally is uncertainty tolerance, which comes from cultivating what social scientists call attitude certainty. When you choose your perspective instead of letting it choose you, this form of attitude certainty can keep you calm, cool and collected.

While avoiding uncertainty is adaptive in that it keeps you safe and sound, the cocoon your primitive brain constructs can be a virtual prison. The same assumptions that keep you safe permeate every sphere of your life and can prevent you from growing, taking necessary risks, and reaching your dreams. The most powerful antidote against uncertainty anxiety is your perspective, which can victimize or empower you. When you look for the upside of an uncertain situation and figure out what you can control and what you can’t, it’s easier to develop uncertainty tolerance and accept whatever is beyond your control.

Attitude certainty leads to endurance and levelheadedness; whereas attitude uncertainty can lead to doubt and anxiety. One way to cultivate attitude certainty is to look for the upside of the quarantine constrictions. When we can’t control what’s happening, we can shift into our thrive mind and challenge ourselves to control the way we respond to what’s happening. That’s where our power lies. Nobody and no situation can take that away unless we give it away.

Other best practices are to extricate the “cans” from the “cannots.” That involves seeing if we can find the opportunity in the difficulty and dwell on positive aspects of life where we can make a difference. We can consider the personal resources at our fingertips, instead of the limitations, and brainstorm possibilities. And we can remind ourselves how our resources provide opportunities to learn about our strengths and positive qualities and put them into practice to grow.

Internal chatter can either boost self-control and uncertainty tolerance and help us thrive. Or it can overestimate threats and undermine our growth. It helps to avoid negative, catastrophic self-talk and use positive self-talk that comforts and reassures us. The more stable and resilient your thrive brain’s tolerance for uncertainty, the more likely you can offset the negativity bias and your survive brain’s fears and flourish— regardless of the uncertain circumstance in your life.

References

Carleton, R.N., et al. (2012). Increasingly certain about uncertainty: Intolerance of uncertainty across anxiety and depression. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26 (3), 468-479.

de Berker, A.O., et al. (2016). Computations of uncertainty mediate acute stress responses in humans. Nature Communications, 7, 1-11. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms10996.

Tang, P., et al. (2011). Correlates of death anxiety among Taiwanese cancer patients. Cancer Nursing, 34 (4), 286-292.

Tormala, Z. & Rucker, D. D. (2018). Attitude certainty: Antecedents, Consequences, and New Directions. Consumer Psychology Review, (1), Pages 72-89.