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Do you know what’s worse than knowing something bad will happen?
Not knowing whether something bad will happen. The state of being stuck in limbo, uncertain about an outcome, is the worst state to be in. We would rather know with absolute certainty that something bad will happen than maybe have it happen.
In 2016, researchers performed a study on the stress levels of participants about to receive a painful electric shock. In situations where subjects had a 50 percent chance of receiving a shock, they experienced much higher stress than subjects who had a 0 or 100 percent chance of shock. That means participants who knew they would definitely get a shock felt calmer than participants who only had a 50 percent chance of shock.
While you’re not going to be subjected to physical torture anytime soon (hopefully), you can probably relate to the stress of not knowing an outcome.You leave a job interview and find yourself dissecting everything you said and the interviewer’s reactions. It’d be easier if you’re a shoo-in for the job or if it’s a long shot.
You get medical tests done and wait for the results. The agony of going in and waiting for news is a large reason why people delay getting tested in the first place. What we don’t know can be dangerous to our well-being.
The Purpose of Stress
While few of us can say that we enjoy stressing over uncertainty, stress responses are beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint. In the study mentioned earlier, people whose stress levels spiked the most during the greatest periods of uncertainty were better at predicting potential danger.
Back thousands of years ago, our ancestors would be hesitant about going into a cave where a bear might reside, or they would harvest and store more food for a harsh winter. Such decisions could mean the difference between life and death.
Today, we face uncertainty in our everyday lives. We scan the streets when walking outside, wonder what we’ll find when logging into our emails, and we analyze the meaning behind someone’s words or actions. Our minds are constantly analyzing our surroundings, trying to assess risks and potential dangers.
Stress can help us prepare for the worst. We make plans, avoid pitfalls, and brace ourselves for whatever outcome life throws at us. If you feel your heart start to race and your forehead start to sweat, pay attention.
When You’re Dealt With Uncertainty Overload
Unfortunately, stress over uncertainty has its drawbacks. Stress can be unproductive. We stay up agonizing over something outside our control. It leads us to make assumptions.
The fear of uncertainty is so great that it leads us to draw conclusions. We’d rather have an answer, even a false one, than a question lingering up in the air. For instance, someone doesn’t respond to your text, so you assume they’re upset with you. Someone doesn’t smile when they speak with you, so you assume the person dislikes you.
Our assumptions can sometimes be right. But sometimes, we just want an answer to our question. Any answer. So we create one in our heads.
But if we act on a wrong assumption, there can be bad consequences. Someone might think you’re overreacting. You might do something else because you thought your original plans weren’t panning out.
Dealing with uncertainty every day can take its toll on our bodies. Chronic stress can lead to anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, heart problems, lowered immune system, and a host of other problems.
The fear of uncertainty can keep us from growing and reaching our goals. We stick inside our comfort zone because it feels like the safest thing to do. Who needs a cage when we lock ourselves in by our own choosing?
Our brains naturally veer us towards being conservative, rather than branch out and risk getting hurt.
How to Shape Uncertainty into a Benefit
Uncertainty will always be a part of life, no matter how stable things get. There is always the chance that something unexpected will pop up, good or bad. But if you learn how to manage it, you’ll find yourself enjoying your everyday life much more.
First, a change in perspective is needed. Instead of shirking away from uncertainty, embrace it as part of your journey. You’re going to run into obstacles. You’re going to run into surprises. But you’re going to run into great opportunities as well. Accepting the inevitable will allow you to be more open to change and newness.
If anything, uncertainty provides the greatest opportunity for learning. A study from Yale found that we only learn during periods of uncertainty. When we’re in a volatile environment, our brains have an enhanced tendency to absorb more information. In stable environments, our brains don’t need to learn, and so we simply continue actions out of habit.
In other words, you need to get outside of your usual environment once in awhile to grow as a person and become more adaptive to the curveballs of life.
Here’s a mind exercise you can try. The next time you want to try something new, imagine the worst possible scenario. Imagine what would happen if it actually happened. How would you feel? How would you react?
Now, think back to a time when you dreaded a certain scenario, and it ended up happening. You probably felt really bad at the time. But was it as devastating and groundbreaking as you thought it would be?
Probably not. If anything, that event has likely become a distant event in the past. In the end, you move on and tackle new challenges.
Transform Uncertainty into Exploration
Uncertainty can be turned into discovery. While we might feel fear, our sense of curiosity can overcome that fear, and lead us to places we might not otherwise find.
Why else would someone choose to explore the depths of the sea? Travel to a far corner of the world? Start a venture that doesn’t come with a guarantee of success?
It’s because, despite all our fears, anxieties, and worries, we still want to go and push the boundaries. Because that’s what life is about. Exploration in one form or another. We seek to learn more about ourselves and more about our world.
Eventually that sense of uncertainty wears away, allowing resilience to take its place.
The Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown by Catherine Burns – In the live storytelling tradition, radio program The Moth presents 45 true stories about taking risks and facing the unknown, from an astronomer who gazes at Pluto for the first time to an undercover journalist posing as a teacher in North Korea. Each story is different, each storyteller from a different background, and yet they all share that brief moment in time where they venture into the unknown – and their lives are changed forever by what they find.