“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened!”
– Mark Twain
We’ve all been here, many times. Something we counted on in the future is suddenly uncertain, and our mind is off to the races with nail-biting worry and rampant speculation, putting us through some pretty terrible things that don’t wind up actually happening.
Maybe it’s an unexpected lay off or downturn in the stock market. Or it might be a test result indicating a serious health issue you don’t have any risk factors for. Or when someone you were sure you knew well does the unthinkable.
No matter what the stressor happens to be, your brain has questions it wants answered immediately:
What will happen with this situation?
What effect will that have on me and those I care about?
How can I prevent any potentially harmful effects?
The problem comes when we can’t answer these questions with certainty. This sends our Stone Age survival-centered brain into orbit because it can’t determine whether or not we have the wherewithal to cope. Neuroscience tells us this is why our brains tend to register anything unknown as threatening and want us to act as if that threat puts us in mortal danger. The trouble is, the uncertainties in modern life tend to be far more abstract than the clear and present danger posed by threats to our physical survival.
The Brain’s Counterproductive Solution to Uncertainty
When presented with an unknown outcome, our brains are programmed with a negative bias in order to prepare for whatever Nature might throw at us. This means the brain is far more ready to believe bad things will happen in the future than it is to simply be present with the uncertainties inherent in any situation.
To illustrate why this negative bias was a life-saver, imagine yourself as a Stone Age hunter-gatherer. You’re moving through the grass and hear an unexpected rustling sound. Your brain says: lion! And you react accordingly. If it turns out to be just a breeze rustling the grass, there’s really no loss. But if your brain thinks it’s probably just a breeze, and it turns out to be a lion… OOPS! There goes your chance to reproduce and pass on your overly optimistic genes!
But here’s the rub: the greater the uncertainty we face, the more likely it is that our minds will fabricate something dreadful to fill the gap in our knowledge, even when we really don’t know what will happen. Your brain is actually more at ease imagining an apocalyptic scenario than it is simply sitting with uncertainty.
This means your hardwired negative bias actually makes emotionally-triggering situations worse because your brain processes the threats you make up in the same way it processes real ones.
Fear that Protects vs. Fear that Keeps You Stuck
So, how do we navigate the fear uncertainty stimulates and still keep our wits about us?
The answer comes down to understanding the difference between fear that protects you from a clear and present danger, and fear that just keeps you stuck in an endless loop of anxiety and tension because it’s based on what you imagine instead of what’s real.
For example, let’s say you’re crossing the street, and seemingly out of nowhere you see a bus heading straight for you. Definitely scary! But here’s the interesting thing: have you noticed in situations like this, you don’t stop to think about what you’re going to do?
Why? Because your body already knows what to do! It knows to get the hell out of the way!!! Your body just takes action before your mind has time to think anything about it!
This is because your brain is highly specialized to respond to physical threats in your environment. The fight, flight, or freeze response is certainly effective in these kinds of situations. Unfortunately, your brain is hardwired to grab for this, no matter what the threat is. So, if the ‘threat’ is the uncertain future, using fight, flight or freeze as the solution is like using a sledge hammer to mash potatoes!
New Tools for a Modern Age
When our Stone Age brains can’t tell the difference between a threat to life and limb and a threat we’ve conjured through speculation, awareness can make all the difference.
Awareness starts with paying attention to what the brain is up to when you’re under stress. If you’re not paying close attention, all the stress hormones coursing through your veins will start making your choices for you. And these choices will be unlikely to serve you in the actual long term.
Practice Embracing Uncertainty – Awareness Exercise
Here is a short activity designed to help you embrace uncertainty without reacting. To start, get a piece of paper or download this worksheet. While it may seem that answering 4 simple questions should be easy, it might actually be a real challenge. Here are the questions:
1. I am anxious about…
Maybe it’s the effect the economy will have on your job security. Maybe you’re worried about your granddaughter’s cognitive decline, your mother’s heart condition. Write down whatever topic you are most anxious about right now.
2. The facts are…
For example: My coworker was let go last week; my employer told me she could guarantee my wage for at least 3 months. Or my grandson is failing 3rd grade. My granddaughter’s internship has been postponed. My father has heart surgery scheduled for Feb. 20th.
The goal here is to get your feet firmly on the ground of objective reality. Use numbers when appropriate and avoid stating emotions or abstractions. The facts are always the starting point for making any sustainable change.
3. The uncertainty that is causing me to be afraid is…
This sentence can be a little tricky because I’m asking you NOT to speculate here. For example, if you’re terrified your son won’t be able to afford his mortgage because it’s unclear when he’ll be able to go back to work, what I want you to write down would be something like this: It’s uncertain how my son will be impacted by the closure of the restaurant where he works.
4. I accept the uncertainty about… just for now.
Here you might write: My son’s future.
Now, take a deep breath and actually say to yourself, “I accept this uncertainty in my life, just for now.”
Next, I want you to observe how you feel in your body. Can you notice any change?
Are you a little less tense? A little more at ease?
Maybe even slightly less afraid?
This exercise is powerful because it’s a way to stay more honest with yourself and more fact-based. It also reminds you to come back to the moment.
For me, the critical element is the piece about accepting the uncertainty just for now. If I’m really triggered, I might have to repeat the sentence a thousand times a day. But it really helps.
Now that you’ve seen how to use these four sentence frameworks as a tool for embracing uncertainty just for now, I hope you’ll be able to start dealing with uncertainty in a more self-empowering, constructive way that grounds you in objective reality and interrupts the temptation to use your imagination to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.
Use this exercise any time anxiety hits. It’s such a simple, powerful way to get back into the now-moment where your life is actually happening. If you’re willing to have the future be what it is—uncertain—then you can be anchored here, in the now-moment, where life is unfolding, the facts are emerging, and your best choices are presenting themselves.
Take good care : )