Uncertainty, our relationship with it and how to become comfortable with it
In this new digitalised era, uncertainty is all around us and it has never been more obvious. Whether it is a global pandemic or mass working from home we cannot be too sure about what comes next. It can be perceived as an issue when it clashes with our sense of security. As humans, we want to feel safe and secure. Uncertainty does the exact opposite, it can lead to fear. This triggers a whole set of emotional responses like anxiety, grief and chronic worry. What makes something in life uncertain? Is it purely because our minds are desperate to know what happens next, so we can create the perfect plan? In this article, I will discuss uncertainty, our relationship with it and various ways we can develop an attitude to cope with it.
What is uncertainty?
Uncertainty is seen as the unknown. This could apply to any aspect of our lives, and deals with the future we envision for ourselves. Uncertainty is the unknown of what will happen next, which loosens our grip on our control over our own lives. It means a situation where there are many alternatives to the outcome we may be rooting for. This is because there is insufficient knowledge about the situation. Thus it becomes hard to predict future outcomes or events as they cannot be measured. In mathematics terms, the probabilities with uncertainty are unwon therefore we are unable to measure any potential outcomes. This means that we cannot plan for uncertainty and must find a way to deal with it when it comes.
Our relationship with uncertainty
Our brains are geared to guard our survival. It is a heavy responsibility and results in our common dislike of uncertainty. It can be pointed to the reason instability itself can have a bigger toll on our health than the change itself. Most people report that the fear of losing their job can be more taxing on their health than the actual job loss itself. Our brain has its animal tendencies therefore when uncertainty is posed; our brains are scrambling to get us to safety. Will I ever meet my dream partner? Will I ever enjoy my work? Am I going to be successful? Now, these initial bodily instincts about uncertainty may come from our need for survival but they result in day-to-day problems. Uncertainty is a long-known cause of anxiety, and this is partially down to how we cope with not knowing what will come next. This results in our imaginations running wild, with our minds creating unrealistic scenarios that play on our insecurities It makes us feel as if we cannot prepare for events in the future and better yet have any control over them. This triggers a response which is related to our relationship with control. Humans love to feel like they are in control of their lives, it makes u feel safe and allows our minds to return to predictability - which is our minds' preference.
Uncertainty and risk
Uncertainty refers to a doubtful thought. This is based on the lack of certainty about what will or will not occur in the future. Certainty is the opposite, which means knowing what will happen in a particular situation There is a link between risk and uncertainty. This is because, in a situation where there is a risk, uncertainty exists.
Example: Someone says: “I am certain I will get this job” this means they are sure they will get the job. Showing conviction and certainty. If the person says “I’m not sure if I will get the job” they are displaying a lack of confidence in the outcome. As there is a risk of not getting the job, uncertainty exists. Differences between risk and uncertainty come down to the information available. Risk is seen as a situation of potentially losing in a particular situation. Whilst uncertainty is where there is no knowledge about future events. Risk can be measured through various models, whilst it is difficult if near enough impossible to measure uncertainty. Potential outcomes are understood when risk is taken into account, whereas with uncertainty the outcomes are unknown. Therefore although there are similarities, as risk and uncertainty can be involved in the same situation, in a nutshell, risk can be measured and uncertainty cannot.
5 ways to cope with uncertainty
Our mindset is key to coping with uncertainty, while many things remain outside of our control, it is up to us to learn techniques to deal with them. There are many methods we can use to help us live with uncertainty, which can help us when we are troubled with chronic worry or anxiety.
Meditation is one of them. It can help you become mindful of your bodily reactions to uncertainty. By taking time to sit with things you are uncertain about, you can become aware of various thought patterns and feelings that are recurrent with uncertainty. With practice, you can begin to tolerate feelings of uncertainty. Meditation can also help you become aware of your imagination and how wild it can run. When we begin to observe our unrealistic scenarios, they can feel very real. Once we recognise the tendency to exaggerate potential events we can challenge these thoughts and daydreams and begin to let them go.
2) Finding healthy comfort activities/items
When we are feeling nervous about the future and we begin to ruminate about what may or may not happen. Our brain wants to settle our nerves as quickly as possible. It does this by activating our dopamine systems. This encourages us to seek rewards, making our temptations more tempting. This is our brain's way of finding comfort. It is useful to find comfort in things that are considered healthy. For example, by having a drink you may prompt yourself to feel worse after the effects wear off. We as humans will feel better when we find comfort in more sustainable healthy things such as; taking a nap, watching a tv show or going for a walk. Sure these things may feel boring when you first start encouraging yourself to do these activities, however, over time it will become a natural response that you will find joy in.
3) Stay in the moment
Take time to practice staying in the moment, although our minds tend to wander in the past and future take time to focus and ground yourself in the moment you are in. This involves focusing on the day ahead of you rather than fixating on longer-term plans. Put your phone down and relax at the moment. It is a known skill that monks and regular meditators focus on. They have discovered that there is much more happiness available in the moment. The aim is to eventually cultivate an attitude of one day at a time. Hopefully, it will prevent you from letting the future potentials affect how you behave today and thus the future will have less power over you.
4) Open up to those around you
When we start feeling the effects of uncertainty it can keep us down in the dumps. It is important in these times, to talk to those around you about how you feel. Whether it is online messages, on the phone, or in person try and tell people around you how you feel about whatever you are uncertain about. These people know you, love you, know how to talk to you and support you. One of the major benefits is the relief you feel from not feeling alone. Being uncertain is one thing, but feeling trapped by your feelings is another. It can leave you feeling alienated and isolated. By sharing with others, you are likely to feel a form of relief as you know your support network is aware of how you’re feeling.
5) Don’t believe everything you think
One of the most useful tools is knowing not to believe everything your mind says. In uncertain times this becomes even more important. Our minds often reflect our feelings therefore when we are feeling uncertain, it begins to create worst-case scenarios that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Of course, worst-case scenarios can have their benefits if we are in the right headspace, but from them, they will feel like they’re happening to you as you imagine them. This can also lead to lowered expectations, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we expect the worst, we often feel too afraid or close-minded to take advantage of opportunities around us. So when you find yourself thinking about the worst-case scenario, challenge yourself by thinking of a best-case scenario as well.
Uncertainty can lead us to feel scared, fearful and simply stuck. It is up to us, to develop an attitude that can successfully deal with uncertainty, or it will end up controlling us. Our brains are guard dogs when it comes to survival and our brains see uncertainty as something that threatens our very survival.
“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is” John Allen Paulos (Mathematician)
This quote demonstrates the attitude we must try and apply towards uncertainty. We cannot predict the future, no matter how powerful our brains are. So we must expect the unexpected and that way we are almost gearing our brains to welcome change, whilst facing the situation head-on. We can never really know what the future will bring and in improbable situations like the pandemic - which massively disrupted our best-laid plans and flipped our routines on their head. Take time to go through the methods above, and try to see if they can help you cope with uncertainty. Additionally, research some others if you feel there may be other methods that resonate with you more. It is up to us to take that step closer to developing an inner resilience to uncertainty.
What are things you are uncertain about in your life?
What is your relationship with uncertainty?
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