Future in limbo? The struggle with uncertainty and how to resolve it

Nov 16, 2016 | Stress

To do or not to do, that is the question

Our brains don’t like uncertainty, but we have a choice to do something (or not) about it.

I wish I knew…

It feels good to know your chances, to predict an outcome.

Unfortunately, sometimes we cannot know at all. Sometimes the future is entirely uncertain.

Perhaps you’re getting a new partner or boss whom you know little about, your organization is merging or planning layoffs, you’re interviewing for a new position but don’t know your chances, or you’re simply stuck on a train that’s inexplicably not moving…

(…or a new and unforeseen President has been elected – but that’s a whole can of worms ;)

When you’re swimming in a sea of the unknown, you could panic. You might freeze or hide in an effort to stay safe. You might feel angry or say or do something you shouldn’t.

Whatever your coping mechanism, one thing is certain about uncertainty: it’s stressful.

Why uncertainty causes stress

We’ve all felt the stress that comes along with being in limbo or being unsure of an outcome.

But did you know that the reason for that stress can be found in your brain?

According to neuroscience, even a bit of uncertainty activates our amygdala, home of our instinctive fight-or-flight response that helped humans to survive for so many years.

This part of the brain has learned to view uncertainty as a threat to our very existence – now that’s a big reason to be stressed!

And the less information you have about an upcoming situation or person, then the harder it is to predict the consequences – or, primitively, the likelihood of your survival – and the greater the threat response.

Uncertainty is worse than pain

A recent study showed just how stressful uncertainty can be. Subjects in the study were asked to play a computer game in which they overturned rocks and received an electric shock when a snake was underneath the rock.

This study found that when the participants were unable to predict the shocks, they became more stressed than when they actually knew they would be shocked! (Shocking, right?)

But as neuroscience explains, the brain’s reward and activation system (in an area called the striatum), including the neurotransmitter dopamine, wants to propel us to act toward or away from perceived consequences. This system also wants to help us by predicting the consequences, so that the action we take is the right one.

But when a negative outcome is unpredictable, dopamine is released in order to get us motivated to act to do something to improve our odds of success. In the study, when a shock was most unpredictable (e.g., 50/50), that’s when the participants tried the hardest to get it right. (For more, see Marc Lewis, Why we’re hardwired to hate uncertainty.)

To act or not to act, that is the question

OK, so we’ve established what happens in our brains when dealing with uncertainty. Now the question is: what to do about it.

The least helpful thing to do is to deny or suppress the problem as that will not relieve the stress. So don’t hide or simply wish the problem away. Otherwise, the stress may show up in other unexpected ways, like a sudden loss of temper or depression.

The brain wants you to do something, whether that is to take action and work harder, or to make a decision to surrender.

So, you’ll need to assess whether you can and want to do something to increase the odds of a better outcome.

Choosing to act

When we’re in a place of chaos, fear or anxiety, we’re stuck in a negative place in the brain’s right hemisphere. The antidote, according to neuroscience, is to access the positive aspects of the left hemisphere which thrive on structure, focus, analysis and logic.

And so feeding this part of the brain through action will calm the stress of uncertainty and reward us with a nice hit of dopamine.

If you try harder, do some research, ask questions, take some action, might it matter? If so, do it!

The actions may be in the form of: a plan, such as a couple of if-then scenarios; research, such as asking questions or gathering information, and charting data; or increasing your focus and working harder on a solution, such as preparing for an interview or avoiding being late by checking different sources for traffic.

Remember, our brains want to help us make good predictions; they want to protect us.

All of this problem-solving or predicting is hard work for your brain, and it can be exhausting. But if you can get closer to knowing an outcome, then you can take wise action, and you will be rewarded with a nice hit of dopamine.

If you cannot get closer to knowing an outcome, then you need to look at your other option.

Choosing to let go

When you recognize that an outcome is completely beyond your control, when you find yourself asking a lot of questions you can’t possibly know the answer to – like when will this person get back to me? will she like me? will the potential client choose me? – then it’s time to see the uncertainty as a different kind of challenge: the challenge of letting go.

Sometimes, you do all you can do. Sometimes, there’s simply nothing you can do.

When you truly have no control over what will happen next, recognize that. Worry and stress will not help because you have no action to take that will help to relieve it.

This is when it’s time to surrender. Relax, breathe, meditate, or do something else to get a dopamine hit (see my last post for more on releasing some dopamine).

Remember, being in limbo, though uncomfortable, is not necessarily bad. In fact, remaining in uncertainty opens your brain to new thoughts and patterns. It can be a rich and creative place, full of possibilities, new ideas, and new directions.

So enjoy the crossroads, and pay attention to what thoughts and ideas come to mind when your brain stops working to predict the future.

Over to you

Does your future feel uncertain? Are you ready to act, or to let go? Please share your thoughts below, or share this post with friend who may be wrestling with uncertainty.

Photo by William Iven at unsplash.com


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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