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The Stress of Uncertainty

We are creatures of habit, and the human brain craves certainty. When things go according to plan, we feel a sense of control. But when we don’t know what is going to happen, when life throws a curveball, the heightened anxiety and stress that comes from the not knowing creates more stress than the event. Our current reality certainly qualifies as uncertain!

COVID-19 has evoked a sense of fear in our lives in a way that hasn’t been felt since the 9/11 terrorist attack. City streets that look like ghost towns, hospitals overflowing with patients, and the isolation of sequestration for an unknown amount of time paint a grim new reality. Perhaps the hardest part of our current reality is the uncertainty of it all. How bad will it be? How many people will die? What is the best way to stay safe? When will it be over?

The brain is wired to treat uncertainty as a threat. And, neuroscientists know that uncertainty is more stressful than knowing something bad is definitely going to happen.

One of the most sophisticated experiments ever conducted on the relationship between uncertainty and stress was published in 2016. The subjects played a computer game where they turned over rocks that might have snakes hidden under them. If a snake appeared, the participants received a painful electric shock. The main finding was that all measures of stress maxed out when uncertainty was highest. When people had absolutely no clue whether they were about to get shocked, stress levels peaked – even beyond the most intense electrical shock.

So what? Uncertainty is a source of stress beyond the thing we are uncertain about. Wondering how long we’re going to be in lockdown is more stressful than being in lockdown. The greater the uncertainty, the greater the stress.

When we feel uncertain, it’s human nature to try to regain control. The problem is that we often don’t do our best thinking in stressful times and we tend to focus on controlling the wrong things:

  • Food: In times of crisis, one of the first personal behaviors to change is eating habits –eating too much, not eating enough, or binging on empty calories.

  • Possessions: Hoarding toilet paper might make us feel more in control, more prepared, but it doesn’t make us safer.

  • Numbing agents: Alcoholic beverage sales shot up 55% in the third week of March compared to the same time a year ago.

Chronic stress depresses the immune system and increases the risk of several types of illnesses making you more susceptible to viral illnesses including respiratory conditions like colds, flu, and the novel coronavirus infection. There is a wealth of research showing that some of the same strategies proven to reduce stress also strengthen the immune system.

The key is to regain control in ways that – intellectually – we know will make us stronger not just give us an emotional hideout. Here are five choices you can make each day to give your emotional and physical health a boost:

  1. Give your body the best fuel you can. Fill your diet with Immunity boosters like foods high in vitamin C and antioxidants. Citrus fruits and red peppers are at the top of the list, but broccoli, spinach, almonds, and mushrooms are loaded with all kinds of nutrients that will give you a fighting chance against the virus. Elderberry is an old folk remedy, but it’s loaded with beneficial nutrients. In some lab studies, an extract from the berries appears to block flu viruses. Click here for 16 foods that boost the immune system.

  2. Find old ways to connect with others. Facetime, Zoom, and even text messaging is a great place to start, but going “old school” by dropping a few cards in the mail each week will give you a boost knowing that you’re surprising someone with a positive moment. Many people isolate themselves when they’re stressed or worried. Social support can be a simple as saying, “I’m thinking of you.”

  3. Create new routines. One of the most disconcerting things about this “new normal” is the lack of structure and routine. The more unstructured blocks of time we have, the harder it is to focus. Try to establish a consistent sleep pattern to give your worried brain an opportunity for restful sleep. Schedule time for a physical activity even if it’s just a walk around the block. Add relaxation events to the calendar such as 30 minutes of reading time or gardening. Creating and maintaining a daily routine can help create a sense of normalcy and certainty.

  4. Look for choices. Stress that feels out of control can be overwhelming. But when we are able to gain some sense of control – even in a small way – that stress feels more manageable. Simply acknowledging opportunities to make personal choices each day can raise your sense of autonomy and normalcy.

  5. Give your worried brain a rest. Be intentional about giving your brain a few minutes each day to rest. Push the anxiety aside for 30 minutes to garden, read, listen to music, whatever works for you. Mindfulness is a great way to regain a sense of calm and control. Mindlessness – giving yourself permission to turn off your thought stream for a few minutes is also a great way to manage the worry.

Doing all five things on a regular basis reduces stress, strengthens the immune system and restores a sense of control. And remember… we are in this together.

Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.https://www.melissahughes.rocks/
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article and shareable suggestions.
    Unconsciously we are led to prefer bad news in the short term rather than tolerate for a long time the uncertainty between multiple scenarios, even when some are largely preferable. One reason is that uncertainty about a potential or perceived risk increases our stress levels more than the certainty of a real danger. If in the past few days we have so easily adhered to apocalyptic narratives and / or minimizing interpretations, it is also because our brain needed to stabilize our perception of uncertainty on a single polarity. Or at least to enclose the field of variables in a less wide frame, so as to make us feel more in control of the situation and to redistribute the stress peaks associated with it.
    Due to our sensitivity as inhabitants of countries long accustomed to collective existential risks, COVID-19 is a “fog” with which we were no longer used to living.
    We must be able to cultivate a delicate and paradoxical balance between acting as responsibly and rationally as possible, aimed at minimizing the risk of being infected and infecting, and accepting the fact that not everything can be controlled, resolved and rationalized. We will have to return to familiarize ourselves with the idea that we are not the “masters” of the planet, as we were convinced of being, but only one of its guests. If we succeed, in the probable loss of much, we will in any case have gained a lot in terms of understanding the complexity, the elusive laws that govern it and the structures to which we have delegated its management. It will come in handy.

    • “If in the past few days we have so easily adhered to apocalyptic narratives and / or minimizing interpretations, it is also because our brain needed to stabilize our perception of uncertainty on a single polarity. Or at least to enclose the field of variables in a less wide frame, so as to make us feel more in control of the situation and to redistribute the stress peaks associated with it.”

      There it is! Thank you for distilling that down in such an eloquent way, Aldo! I’ve talked to so many people who are struggling with the polarizing emotions of “not knowing.” It’s an opportunity, it’s scary, it’s a time to pause, it’s a time to panic.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and share your reflections here. I appreciate it!

  2. #6: Don’t look under rocks!

    Seriously, all five of your pointers are great, but I’m drawn to #5 because it implements #3. I’m typically not good at #5, so I need to make it a new routine.

    Thanks for these nuggets!

  3. Great article, Melissa. Certainty is one of the basic needs all humans have and when that is removed, for the persons who crave certainty, they are more prone to compensate in the negative ways you mentioned. I appreciate the simple, but effective strategies you recommend.

  4. Thank you for this Melissa! Some of my clients are depressed because they are not keeping a routine. I encouraged them even as they work remotely to go to bed at their regular time and get dressed as if they were going to work, for the women put on make up. I appreciate your suggestions. I drink lots of Apple Cider Vinegar (tablespoons I water of course) which I had been doing for awhile. They say it is also rich in antioxidants.💖

    • Ahhh… you’d added some other great tips, Darlene. I know someone who still dresses in shirt and tie to work from home each day. It puts him in the right headspace and makes him feel much more productive. Whatever works, right? Thanks for sharing these tips!

  5. Great advice for managing stress. These actions will help in any stressful situation. I have been told by numerous medical people that stress is the great silent killer. We can’t avoid stress, but we can learn to manage it.

    • So true, Ken. As so many people struggle with feelings of powerlessness right now, we can make choices every single day that will either exacerbate our stress or mitigate it. Thanks for taking the time to read and reflect.

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