Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Uncertainty Freaks You Out

The neuroscience of the unknown and how facing it can change your life.

If you're like most people, you hate life’s inevitable uncertainties, which can cause tremendous anxiety. Will I get the promotion? Will I be accepted into graduate school? Will I win the award? What are the results of my MRI? Even wondering where the winding road goes, what lies in the dark shadows at the end of the moss-covered stone steps, who's behind the mask, or what lurks underneath the clown makeup stirs fear.

Photo by Ahmed Zayau on Unsplash
Not knowing who's behind the mask can freak you out.
Source: Photo by Ahmed Zayau on Unsplash

Why? Because uncertainty equals danger. If your brain doesn't know what’s around the corner, it can’t keep you out of harm’s way.

When certainty is questioned, your lizard brain goes haywire, instantly kicking you in the pants in an attempt to spur you to action and get you to safety. The ground beneath you opens up, threatening to swallow you, or so it feels. Your serenity is seriously screwed—but hey, at least you’re safe, right?

The Power of Certainty

Waiting for certainty can feel like torture by a million tiny cuts. Sometimes the brain prefers to know an outcome one way or another to take the edge off. Studies show that you're calmer anticipating pain than anticipating uncertainty because pain is certain.

Job uncertainty, for example, takes a greater toll on your health than actually losing the job. Statistics also show you're more likely to maintain the stamina to continue taking risks after a car crash than after a series of psychological setbacks. And British researchers found that 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.

A Doozy of an Uncertainty Scanner

Your brain is constantly scanning and updating your world, making judgments about what's safe and what isn't. Constantly on the lookout, it discerns, processes, worries. It watches out when you're driving in heavy traffic, searching for your car in a dark parking garage, or struggling to meet a tight deadline.

It never shuts down. It's active even when you're asleep, working overtime on 24/7 alert for anything questionable or unusual. When it can't assimilate a stranger or animal or a novel situation, it arouses fear of survival or fight or flight.

Like an overprotective parent guarding a wobbly toddler or monitoring the social media accounts of an independent-minded teenager, your brain's feelers are set to hyper-alert. But just as a parent who goes too far in protecting their charge can stifle that child's development, your brain's hyper-vigilance—no matter how well-intended—holds you back. When you live in an amped-up state for too long—alarm bells ringing at full blast—it eclipses your clarity, well-being, and potential for growth. And it can burn you out, just like working overtime can.

Due to its disdain for uncertainty, your brain makes up all sorts of untested stories hundreds of times a day. A friend doesn't respond to a text, a colleague wears a frown and uses a certain tone of voice, or you're not included on the guest list. Chances are, you assume the worst, over-personalize the event, and jump to conclusions. (Your brain will do almost anything for the sake of certainty.)

After you tear the perceived perpetrator a new one, she or he stares at you—open-mouthed—as though you've lost your mind. And in a way, you have. You sacrificed your "thinking mind" for assumptions, all in an effort to create certainty. Unchecked, your uncertainty scanner inadvertently siphons the joy out of your life.

The Unmade Mind and Your Uncertainty Tolerance

While avoiding uncertainty keeps you safe and sound, the cocoon your brain constructs for you can become a prison. The same assumptions that keep you safe permeate every sphere of your life. They prevent you from growing and reaching your dreams.

A made-up mind can fool you into thinking you're safe, but the problem is, you don't see life as it really is; you see life as you think it is. If your mind is made up before each new experience, you become unteachable and can no longer learn and grow. Unmaking your mind (or letting go of the need for certainty) empties it of expectations and opens you to receive the teachable moments in each new situation. Buddhists call it the "beginner's mind" when you're open to many possibilities instead of closed to all but one.

If it's difficult for you to tolerate uncertainty, chances are you expect a negative outcome. But changing your perspective and reminding yourself that many gifts await you in the uncertainty, that it contains many positive outcomes, is a game-changer. This re-frame amps up your "uncertainty tolerance," takes the edge off the waiting period, and brings balance to your brain's ability to anticipate positive and negative outcomes more evenly.

And the story doesn't end there. Yale neuroscientists found that uncertainty might be healthy for your brain because you learn more in situations that are unsure. In a predictable setting, your brain doesn't need to do as much. It becomes a couch potato of sorts. But when situations change, it works harder.

According to Yale Professor Daeyeol Lee, "When you enter a more novel and volatile environment, this might enhance the tendency for the brain to absorb more information." These findings seem to echo the importance of sticking your neck outside your comfort zone to cultivate a growth mindset, develop resilience, and succeed and prosper.

The Yellow Brick Road

There's no denying that uncertainty is certain. Like death and taxes, it's one of the few things you can count on in life. Resisting uncertainty doesn't get rid of it, and it doesn't give you anything to count on, either. The world will still be unpredictable, no matter how hard you try to pretend otherwise. And despite your best efforts, things won't always go as planned.

If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, you only amplify your fear and end up at war with yourself, arguing with life instead of living it, much like the characters in "The Wizard Of Oz." The magic mojo to overcoming the inevitable uncertainty of life is to welcome it with open arms. If you fight it, it's like mud wrestling a pig. You're guaranteed to get dirty. The pig loves it, and you never win.

If you avoid clinging to certainty to cushion your fall, you won't succumb to fear of the unknown. Accepting whatever life delivers to your doorstep, no matter how scary or challenging you think it will be, actually reduces fear and anxiety. It's as if we're all on the yellow brick road, on our way to see the Wizard of Oz. On our journey, we meet unexpected obstacles, and we cower and tremble from the uncertainty of it all. But in the end, we discover things were never as bad as we thought, and we already had everything we needed to survive and thrive.