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 video game 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.
5 ways to deal with uncertainty and stress
If you’re one that worries too much about what could happen, what should happen and what has happened. Here are a couple meditative and relaxing tips for you on how to handle these dynamic emotions and states of mind.
1. Tap into the flow state
One of the best ways to deal with the uncertainties of life is to learn to let it all happen before you, without pushing or pulling, without exerting your will too much on the situation. This could also be described as being in flow or in the meditative state. When you’re aligned and present with the situation before you, whatever it may be, you feel that redundant stress and anxieties dissipate into the immediacy of the moment. In most cases this would be the best way to deal with the situation at hand, but not always mind you. Sometimes we do need to exert willpower to bring necessary changes in and around ourselves. Learning how to consciously induce the flow state is a good way to get a handle on the negative side-effects of uncertainty.
2. Start a meditation practice
We’re quite fond of meditation here on True Relaxations, as you might’ve noticed if you’ve browsed through our articles. We feel that the more we move into this age of information / distraction, the more we’re in need of practices and insights that bring us closer to the immediacy of the present moment. For many people, a meditation practice is a good natural antidote for many of the psychological disturbances that’s haunting our modern societies. Through meditating regularly you’re creating a gap between yourself as an observer and the innumerable objects being perceived in your consciousness, while simultaneously training your mind to become one-pointed.
3. Change your habits
Our habits govern our lives. The way you think and the things you do are in many ways the governing factors that drive your life. By cultivating new and healthy lifestyle habits that supports relaxation, clarity of mind and your overall growth as a human being, you are blessing yourself.
4. Try a relaxing hobby
Similar to healthy habits, fun and relaxing hobbies are great ways of allowing you to grow as a person. If you have a restless mind, trying out a new relaxing hobby could be exactly what you need. It could be anything really, ranging from handicrafts like knitting or pottery to music, dancing or hiking.
5. Uncertainty as part of life
By deeply and intuitively understanding that life always brings with it uncertainty, you’re in many ways free from its implications. The deeper the understanding goes, the freer you are. Because let’s face it, what would life be without uncertainty. If everything was certain and known beforehand, what would be the fun of living. Luckily we live in a ever-changing world that each new corner brings with it a novel experience, both good and bad. The only thing we can do is to do the best with the time that’s given to us by the universe and nature.
By relaxing consciously, and learning how to ‘let go’ or flow with our stress and uncertainty response we free ourselves up.
Mainly by reducing 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.