Uncertainty is bad, but are we sure about it?

Uncertainty is dose dependent. A little bit – for example, not knowing the way a story will end – is enjoyable. But as uncertainty increases, enjoyment gives way to discomfort, then anxiety, and sometimes even panic. So what must the political uncertainty around the world be doing to us?

Uncertainty can lead to anxiety.Credit:Shutterstock

Participants exposed to uncertainty in laboratory experiments show a number of stress-induced reactions.

A team of scientists at the University of New South Wales and Simon Dunne at Caltech ran fMRI brain scans on participants while asking them to make complex decisions under changing levels of uncertainty.

Uncertainty activated learning centres in the cortex, while also triggering those parts of the brain that respond to stress. In other words, when we can't predict what's going to happen, we become more alert and ready to learn, but at the same time distressed and frightened.

It also has a powerful effect on anxiety when we're faced with unpleasant possibilities. Alan Monat at California State University told some participants they would definitely receive an electric shock but they wouldn't know when it would occur, while they told others there was only a possibility they might receive a shock. Those who knew shock was inevitable were initially highly anxious but became calmer as time went on, whereas those who weren't sure whether they'd be shocked were not only initially anxious, but became increasingly so. It seems certainty – even unpleasant certainty – makes us less anxious over time, whereas continuing uncertainty pushes anxiety levels ever higher.

Archy de Berker and colleagues at University College London asked participants to play a computer game that required them to overturn rocks that might have a snake underneath. If they chose a rock that harboured a snake, they received a painful electric shock. During the game the experimenters manipulated the level of uncertainty, making it harder/easier for participants to learn how to avoid the snakes. They also measured their stress levels while they tried to discover which rocks to avoid. Participants were most stressed when uncertainty levels were highest.

Certain personality traits are associated with sensitivity to uncertainty. For example, Jacob Hirsh and Michael Inzlicht at the University of Toronto found individuals who score high on neuroticism – who are moody and highly likely to worry, or feel angry or frustrated – are more likely than others to overreact to uncertainty.

In our current climate of uncertainty, what can you do to ease your distress?

  • Stop guessing. Practice techniques that encourage you to accept what is, rather than pass judgment or try to predict what's coming. Mindfulness and meditation are particularly helpful.
  • Quiet your limbic system. Mindful breathing and yoga will help you relax
  • Limit exposure to uncertainty. Listen to or read news reports only at certain times of day.

Telegraph, London

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