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The Psychology of Understanding and Managing Uncertainty

Why is uncertainty so stressful—and what strategies can help us cope?

Key points

  • When facing ongoing uncertainty, our bodies stay at a high level of physiological arousal, exerting considerable wear and tear.
  • Uncertainty exerts a strong pull on our thoughts and inhibits our ability to act, leaving us in a suspended waiting game.
  • We can manage uncertainty by figuring out what we can control, distracting ourselves from negative thoughts, and reaching out to others.

When my college moved to remote learning in March of 2020, I assured my students that things would get back to normal soon, “certainly by fall.” Then the fall semester started, with me teaching most of my students via Zoom and the others in a tent while wearing a mask. Last spring, with the rollout of the vaccine, I again (naively) assured my students that surely things would return to normal this fall. And of course, I’m still teaching in a mask to a room full of students wearing masks. Things are decidedly not back to normal.

For many of us, the early days of the pandemic were full of anxiety, but could also be viewed as a decidedly short-term break in our normal routine. In the midst of buying huge amounts of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, people took up new hobbies and routines, from exercising at home to adopting shelter dogs to making sourdough starter. But now, more than 18 months into the pandemic, we’ve all been living in a suspended state of uncertainty—and not surprisingly, rates of mental disorders are rising.

The Hazards of Uncertainty

Why is uncertainty so hard for most of us to handle?

First, we’re hard-wired to notice—and respond—quickly to threat (the so-called “fight-or-flight response”). This ability is adaptive at an evolutionary level, which explains research findings showing that even young children are much faster at recognizing snakes and spiders than flowers, frogs, or caterpillars.

Although quickly recognizing and responding to immediate threats in our environment helps us survive, it’s far less adaptive in the face of chronic stressors, which don’t provide an opportunity for a fast escape. In the case of ongoing uncertainty, our bodies stay at a high level of physiological arousal, exerting considerable wear and tear. This finding helps explain empirical research showing that people who have a 50% chance of receiving an electric shock feel more stress than people who have a 100% chance of receiving a shock. In other words, the anticipation of pain feels worse than the pain itself.

The detrimental effects of uncertainty are why people who report persistent concern about losing their jobs experience worse health and higher rates of depression than people who get fired. In fact, some research indicates that chronic job insecurity is a stronger predictor of poor health than smoking or high blood pressure.

Uncertainty also exerts a strong pull on our thoughts, whether we like it or not. In one simple demonstration of the power of uncertainty, researchers gave college women information about how a male student felt about them. Some were told the male student liked them a lot, others were told he liked them an average amount, and still others were told the man either liked them a lot or an average amount (the uncertainty condition). Who did women then report finding most attractive? Not surprisingly, women were more attracted to the men who liked them a lot than the men who liked them an average amount. But they were most attracted to—and found themselves thinking about the most—the men in the uncertain condition.

Source: geralt/pixabay

Chronic uncertainty is particularly difficult because it inhibits our ability to act, leaving us in a suspended waiting game. As Alan Paton eloquently wrote in Cry, the Beloved Country, “Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arrival. When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house.”

Strategies for Managing Uncertainty

So, what can we do to manage uncertainty? Empirical research in psychology points to three clear strategies.

First, figure out what you can control, and focus your efforts on those tasks and goals. This message is perfectly captured in the famous Serenity Prayer used in AA programs: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.”

Second, distract yourself from negative thoughts. Researchers in one study examined people’s reactions to a local major natural disaster—the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake near San Francisco, which killed 57 people and caused tremendous property damage. Some people reported they tended to distract themselves from negative feelings about this disaster, such as by doing something fun with friends or going to a favorite place to take their mind off the event. Other people reported they tended to ruminate about the disaster, such as by repeatedly thinking about the moment the earthquake hit, the people who died, and what might happen in the next earthquake. Two months later, when researchers surveyed those in both groups to examine how they were faring, those who reported ruminating about the disaster had more symptoms of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder than people who instead distracted themselves.

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Third, reach out to others. Social support is generally good for psychological and physical health, and is particularly useful when facing major and ongoing stressors. Researchers in one study assessed how survivors responded to the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in which 33 people died. Although some students, as expected, showed higher levels of depression and anxiety over the next year, others didn’t show a big change in their overall mood state, for better or for worse. But the most remarkable finding was that some students actually felt better in the year after experiencing this tragedy. In fact, students who sought out social support from and developed stronger connections with other students showed decreases in anxiety and depression. Thus, even in the case of truly devastating events, people who make connections with others experience substantial benefits.

Perhaps one silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is that we are all facing this ongoing stress together—and we can all get by better with a little help from our friends?