Linda Walter LCSW

Life Without Anxiety

Managing Uncertainty When Nothing Is Certain

Coping with the chaos

Posted May 21, 2020

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The world is in the grip of a global pandemic. We are living in uncertain times, and it may be difficult to cope with that uncertainty. You may feel worried right now, you may struggle to keep anxious thoughts in check, and you may feel unsure about the future. You are not alone!

But help is at hand—you can learn to live with uncertainty. 

Facing Uncertainty Is Actually Scarier Than Facing Physical Pain

A new study shows that the uncertainty of something bad happening can be more stressful than the knowledge of something bad happening.

In 2016, a group of London researchers explored how people react to being told they will either “definitely” or “probably” receive a painful electric shock. They discovered an intriguing paradox. Volunteers who knew they would definitely receive a painful electric shock felt calmer and were measurably less agitated than those who were told they only had a 50 percent chance of receiving the electric shock.

Researchers recruited 45 volunteers to play a computer game in which they turned over digital rocks that might have snakes hiding underneath. Throughout the game, they had to guess whether each rock concealed a snake. When a snake appeared, they received a mild but painful electric shock on the hand. Over the course of the game, they got better about predicting under which rocks they’d find snakes, but the game was designed to keep changing the odds of success to maintain ongoing uncertainty.

When we’re facing outcomes imbued with uncertainty, it’s the fact that something bad might happen that “gets” us. The researchers noted that the volunteers’ level of uncertainty correlated to their level of stress. So, if someone felt certain he or she would find a snake, stress levels were significantly lower than if they felt they might find a snake.

In both cases, volunteers would get a shock, but their stress was loaded with added uncertainty. Archy de Berker from the UCL Institute of Neurology said: “Our experiment allows us to draw conclusions about the effect of uncertainty on stress. It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t.”

Uncertainty Ignites Our Primitive Survival Instinct

If we can’t neutralize a perceived threat, we worry. We grapple with whatever the problem is to find solutions to the threat, and when there are none, we worry more. Does worrying make us feel better? No, of course, it doesn’t—it makes us feel worse and more frustrated that we can’t affect the outcome the way we want. In our need for certainty, we are wired to “catastrophize”—we view or talk of a situation as worse than it actually is. This leads to more worry, which in turn leads to anxiety.

The modern brain struggles to distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat. The result is that the primitive brain takes over and triggers the primitive survival instinct, fight-or-flight, as it did when the saber-toothed tiger wanted to eat us for lunch. It asks questions:

  • What is going to happen…?
  • What is around the corner for me…?
  • Should I be doing more…?
  • Should I be doing less…?
  • What if my business is threatened…?
  • What if my livelihood is threatened…?
  • What if my life is threatened…?

The lack of answers can lead to anger, aggression, and frustration.

What Can We Do to Mitigate Uncertainty?

There are a number of things we can do to lessen the effects of uncertainty:

  • Awareness is key—be aware of your feelings and emotions.
  • Notice the “worry story” you are telling yourself—try to distance yourself from it.
  • Focus on breathing or something right in front of you as a way to distract yourself from your worrying thoughts.
  • Recognize the need to rise above fight-or-flight.
  • Accept uncertainty—allow yourself to stop the struggle.

Stand up to Anxiety With Some Mood-Boosters, Such As:

  • Exercise and movement
  • Meditation, self-hypnosis
  • Achievement-oriented activity
  • Something pleasant or fun

Just 15 minutes a day of focusing on yourself will help you regain a sense of balance. 

The more you practice all these strategies, the better you will become!

I would highly recommend incorporating the following strategies into your daily life to minimize anxiety:

1. Exercise for 30 minutes per day—ideally outside. Exercise has such a profound effect on happiness and well-being that it’s actually been proven to be an effective strategy for overcoming stress and anxiety.

2. Accept that anxiety is a learned behavior. Remind yourself that the feelings of anxiety do not belong to you. When you feel any of those old unwanted sensations, look around and reassure yourself that there are no immediate dangers.

3. Eat three meals a day. Choose nutritional foods, and limit your sugar, alcohol, and caffeine intake; because anxiety is physiological, stimulants may have a significant impact.

4. Increase the joy in your life. Build a complementary set of neural pathways so that your brain begins to default to feelings of joy and relaxation. As you continually instruct your brain’s attention to good feelings, it will notice them more and more often. From this moment forward, anytime you notice yourself feeling particularly good, put your hand on your heart and take a moment to acknowledge how good it feels. Next, give your mind the instruction to seek out more of this good feeling in the future or simply say out loud: “I feel good!”

5. Get plenty of sleep. Good-quality sleep is essential for a healthy mind and body. Insufficient sleep can have a detrimental effect on your mood, and sleep deprivation increases anxiety levels.

6. Use anxiety distraction techniques. Distraction is simply shifting your focus onto something else for a few moments. It can be a good way to fend off any sudden symptoms of anxiety. This can also allow you to “take a step back from the world” and take a more considered approach to the situation, rather than a “reactive” one. If you do this for around three minutes, you will find that any sudden symptoms will dissipate.

You can do this!