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Why do we find uncertainty uncomfortable?

The biggest myth in life is security. Life is, annoyingly, full of uncertainty especially during a worldwide pandemic. It’s been said that uncertainty is the only true certainty in life (wrap your brain around that!). What comes next? Will I be okay? Will my family be okay? Can I make plans in the next few months? Will ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ ever be filmed in Australia again? Questions like this can go around and around our heads like a washing machine cycle stuck on spin.


Uncertainty Explained

First, let’s talk about what uncertainty is. If someone were to give us three options, which might cause us the most amount of anxiety?

  1. We won’t get an electric shock

  2. We definitely will get an electric shock

  3. We might get an electric shock

Studies show that the option that gives us the highest amount of anxiety is the most uncertain one, we ‘might’. Our anxiety levels actually peak at 50%, when there’s a 50/50 chance. That means that we feel less anxious if we’re told we are 80% likely to get a shock, go figure! [1]


Imagine having a job interview and being told only two people are being considered, and you’re one of them. Having a 50% chance of getting a job can cause us huge amounts of anxiety.


Uncertainty is not knowing and as human beings not knowing is risky business. We tend to be much more comfortable with things we feel we can predict or control.

The Science

If we look at our evolution, we humans have learnt to distrust uncertainty. Our brains are hard-wired to respond to threats. If there was a 50/50 chance a predator might jump out and attack us, you can bet that our adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) were at a peak. Uncertainty can make us feel horribly vulnerable. Our bodies become primed for possible action, getting ready for standing our ground and fighting or running away as quickly as our legs can carry us.


Having high or consistently heightened levels of adrenaline and cortisol makes it incredibly difficult to relax, switch off, chill-out, and feel safe, calm, and secure.


How to Thrive

Sometimes we make decisions that aren’t in our best interest, like staying in an unhealthy relationship or not leaving an energy-draining job we hate. Often because the uncertainty of what might happen next creates more anxiety than the certainty of staying put.


By embracing uncertainty, we can thrive. Think about it, how we feel is very much decided by what we do when we come up against uncertainty.


“Allowing ourselves the time and space to experience and accept our feelings is really important. When uncertainty feels overwhelming, or too much, it can help to take some deep breaths and then do something we enjoy and that we do have control over.” Grace McMahon, Beingwell Life Coach

So, the next time we feel wobbly, fearful, or anxious remember that uncertainty is part of life and try these steps:


Accept our feelings

We’re not broken, we’re not weird, or wrong, or strange. It’s perfectly normal and natural to find uncertainty uncomfortable. Try to bring gentle curiosity to whatever feelings and thoughts are there.


Connect to others

Our lives have changed in hundreds of little ways in this pandemic. Keeping emotionally close to the people we love is more important than ever. Be honest. Share how we’re feeling. Go outside, smile like a goof at others (from a distance), do a spot of virtual volunteering or virtual babysitting for a friend or neighbour who has kids at home.


Give ourselves a break

We don’t need to learn Italian, we don’t need to take up crochet, we don’t need to write a novel, we don’t need to be the best parents, partner, friend. We’re doing our best. Sometimes it’s okay to build a den in our living room and stay in there all day.


Laugh

That can be a hard one when we’re feeling anxious or uncertain. Schedule time to laugh. Think about what’s funny to us. That might be watching a comedy, dancing like our Dads to some funky tunes, being silly with our kids, listening to a funny podcast, or falling down the YouTube rabbit hole of epic fails and cat videos.


And remember: How we choose to face uncertainty, know we’re not facing it alone, and that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable with not knowing.


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