We are hard-wired to dislike uncertainty. In 2016 a group of researcher published their findings into how uncertainty affects stress in people. They ran a series of tests with volunteers, where the volunteer was asked to play a videogame overturning rocks. Under some rocks were snakes. If the snake was discovered the volunteer was administered a harmless but painful electric shock.
The experiment was designed so that even if the volunteers tried to work out patterns of where the snakes might appear, the chances of them finding one and getting shocked remained random and unpredictable.
The researchers measured responses such as pupil dilation in the eye, as well as sweat response, and the subjects reported on how stressed they felt.
The results were that a link between uncertainty and high stress levels were observed and reported by the volunteers.
Why would this be?
Think to your own life and how often you get stressed. How many times is the level of stress linked to an actual negative event, and how many times is it linked to the uncertainty around a negative event?
For example, many people in our current economic climate are concerned about redundancy as many businesses struggle with funding. The uncertainty can cause a huge amount of stress, even when we are still employed.
Or we might find we are made redundant but find another job and remain stressed because we’re not sure if we will enjoy our new job.
Or we might begin the new job, find we like it, but then get stressed about career-progression prospects, or anxious about an unfamiliar commute.
Do you see a pattern emerging?
Why Do We Hate Uncertainty so much?
Although a negative event, like getting shocked when uncovering a snake on a computer games is stressful, the study found that stress-levels were higher amongst participants when they couldn’t predict if they were going to get shocked or not.
In other words, the fear of the negative event and the uncertainty about whether it was going to happen was more stressful than the negative event itself.
Why is this the case?
Well, some of our stress comes down to the degree of uncertainty about a negative event. In the study, researchers found that when the chances of getting a shock were around 50% this led to the highest levels of stress.
Evolution and Uncertainty
This makes sense when you consider how we evolved to adapt to challenges and fear. The brain is said to be like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive. This is because of our survival instincts and our primal ‘fight or flight’ response to danger.
When we lived in a more physically risky world we needed to be able to assess risk quickly and remember what posed a threat to us. It’s more important to know which dangerous animals to avoid (like snakes) than it is to recall how beautiful a sunrise appears.
We have developed advanced systems to anticipate and respond to risk, or stress.
The problem comes when we overuse these systems and flood ourselves with negative responses.
The snake study found that when risk was the most unpredictable – 50% – the participants experienced more stress, but they also performed better. This is as you might imagine when dealing with an immediate threat.
However, if you are constantly scanning for and responding to stress which doesn’t require immediate reaction, then this can have a negative impact on you.
Learning to Embrace Uncertainty
By relaxing, and learning how to ‘let go’ of our stress and uncertainty response we free ourselves up in two important ways.
The first way is to reduce the harmful effects of stress and anxiety on the body-mind. High levels of stress can be related to heart problems, high blood pressure, anxiety-disorders, poor sleep and a higher risk of depression and ruminating thoughts. When we allow our problems and fear to run in circles in our minds we can produce harmful results. We don’t solve our problem, merely stress our mind and system into exhaustion.
Learning how to relax and allow the stress and uncertainty to be with us, but not judged as negative, and to move freely can help to reduce harmful stress.
The second way embracing uncertainty can be useful is in allowing us to ask the ‘big’ questions of self-discovery.
Despite our amazing scientific and spiritual advances, we still have many questions which bare unanswerable. Other question cannot be answered in logical terms.
Learning to be comfortable with asking the ‘big’ questions, even whilst knowing we may not get any solid answers can help us when developing spiritually.
“Man errs as long as he strives.”
I’m Grace, a fallen star living in Englands blooming fields.