This past spring, colleges and universities closed alongside the public school systems due to state orders of precaution with the current pandemic flaring across campuses everywhere. If students were staying in their campus dormitory, they were given a week or so to pack any belongings and leave to seek refuge in their home cities. For many in the Class of 2020, their “senior spring” became a page out of a history book as vital information rapidly evolved at lightning speed in the early days of our nation’s spring outbreak.
One of the more challenging aspects of this pandemic remains the uncertainty that people are currently facing. Uncertainty still abounds with how widespread and deadly the coronavirus can be. Uncertainty about the status of their jobs and the future trajectory of the global economy, uncertainty about planned travel, and uncertainty about how long this will last. Uncertainty is a close relative of fear, and it can fuel the fires of anxiety burning from within the fear center of the brain. Many have termed this as an emotional infection where good intentions shared on social media around current events become a widespread social contagion of anxiety. Professor and author Daniel Gilbert reflects, “Our national gloom is real enough, but it isn’t a matter of insufficient funds. It’s a matter of insufficient certainty.”
When observing the current unpredictability of the upcoming national election season, geographic events of a swarming desert locust plague in East Africa, wild bushfires in Australia, and earthquakes with fractures and fissures on the global map, we can observe that uncertainty has claimed much of this new decade whether monetary, geopolitical, or social in nature.
Behavioral economists believe that humans have a very strong capacity to understand and process risk while absorbing the loss. With much absent data in the process of calculating the widespread effects of current events, the prefrontal cortex (responsible for being the command center and decision-maker in the brain) loses its flair for being the calculative machinery that naturally makes sense of information. Not having complete information then leads to even more fear.
How uncertainty affects our mental health
Dr. Dan Grupe of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison explains, “In other animals, unpredictability or uncertainty can lead to heightened vigilance, but I think what’s unique about humans is the ability to reflect on the fact that these future events are unknown or unpredictable. Uncertainty itself can lead to a lot of distress for humans in particular.”
The ability to worry about the future and fear what it brings can be a uniquely human experience in contrast to animals that simply become more vigilant and aggressive when experiencing uncertainty. Previous research demonstrated that uncertainty manifests as a powerful stressor. The Uncertainty Response-Emotional factor from the Uncertainty Response Scale (URS—Greco & Roger, 2001) measures individual differences in the extent to which uncertainty is perceived as stressful.
The Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale (IUS) was developed by a team of researchers in Quebec to better understand how people would react to uncertain circumstances, ambiguous situational factors, and how much people would desire predictability. This team of Canadian researchers linked high IU (Intolerance of Uncertainty) to several anxiety disorders as well as (less strongly) to forms of eating disorders and depression. Much of the research has been done on generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and IU also appears to be a causal risk factor—it is not just linked to GAD, but that higher IU has been seen to lead to more worry. This is true not just of clinical anxiety, but everyday worry as well. In fact, the research team indicates that uncertainty has been a necessary condition for anxiety of any variety.
Uncertainty can turn into both fear and motivation
Worry generally involves thoughts related to possible future threats and involves bodily sensations as well as the emotional experiences associated with this stream of consciousness. When worry translates its target to that which is completely known and predictable, it becomes a form of fear. When our stream of consciousness attends to that which remains ambiguous, unpredictable, and uncertain – then there is more of a likelihood that these situations will generate anxiety.
Expert clinicians cite that people with GAD have worry on the extreme end – similar to the common individual that maintains everyday worry – but just has significantly more of its frequency in their stream of consciousness and felt experience. Extreme IU can be likened to a psychological allergy to a type of food: one individual may not have a particular aversive reaction to the food as another that has more of a visceral reaction to the worrisome situation. IU is vastly linked to emotion regulation, safety detection, and threat monitoring within the various brain regions and neocortical mechanisms. Typically in ambiguous and uncertain situations, the brain looks for environmental clues to associate these with past experiences of threat and/or safety. When the brain cannot distinguish between what is a threat versus what is safe in the felt experience, then it will signal everything as a threat in the unknown and uncertain context. These three factors: not knowing what to do, not knowing what will happen in the future, and not knowing how others are thinking and feeling are all significant factors that become a contextual breeding ground for anxiety and fear to keep manifesting.
In an age where uncertainty has become more of the normative experience, there are scenarios in which the circumstances of uncertainty can be seen as both thrilling and altogether stirring in contrast to being bothersome and nerve-racking. Dr. Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago, identified that people feel more excited and work harder and longer when given tasks where the size of the reward is uncertain. She remarks, “it’s exciting when the stakes are not huge. We try to keep the stakes small enough so the excitement doesn’t at any point turn into some terror. We don’t assume people would like their salary to be uncertain. It’s the small uncertainties.” People typically take on usually one of these two strategies in battling the intolerance of uncertainty: avoid or approach. Here are several effective proven ways to navigate uncertainty in this next season:
- In March 2020 at the time of the national outbreak, a survey polled that 36% of adult Americans are experiencing a greater impact on their mental health due to the widespread of the virus and uncertainty of COVID-19, and many started to experience overwhelm, fear, and anxiety as a consequence of this global viral scare. Cognitive reframing, a psychological tool, is gaining ground to help people see this virus and the uncertainty of our circumstances from an alternative perspective. As part of a global community, we are in this together and reframing can continue to serve as an ongoing reminder to connect with those that we care about rather than get lost within our own dread.
- In 2019, a group of participants within a study were given various instructions on navigating unpleasant events and how to accept them. Mindful acceptance practices were seen to be effective for individuals battling anxiety, depression, and loneliness related to coming to terms with unpleasant events. Acceptance strategies in mindfulness involve returning attention to the present moment without judgment or reaction to the situation, and the research has demonstrated that people tend to have significantly less negative feelings about uncertainty when using acceptance strategies.
- Rewiring our brain’s response to uncertainty through both aerobic and anaerobic exercise for 12 or more minutes as well as nature exposure for 90 minutes showed alterations in connectivity patterns of the amygdala – the emotional alarm system of the brain responsible for reacting and interpreting stress. Sleep and meditation also have well-established research links to structural changes within the brain and effective means for navigating the day with less emotional reactivity.
- Refocusing on smaller, guaranteed and sure outcomes and victories can be part of the arsenal of reframing, accepting, and re-engaging a response to uncertainty. Switching from anxious thoughts in forecasting negative outcomes to predictable, short-term routines and lifestyle practices can benefit in the offset of a larger uncertainty. Transitioning our focus from long-term uncertainty to short-term outcomes can be of great importance in this season.
- In her recent research reflection, Emotional Contagion, Dr. Elaine Hatfield defines “primitive” emotional contagion as the “tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.” She remarks that this occurs through mimicry, feedback, and contagion. It can be seen as a favorable practice to observe how repeatedly adopting the negative emotions of other people in our lives can create an unpleasant atmosphere of unhealth—preventing us from seeing the contagion or its cause. Protecting ourselves from emotional contagion that activates negative emotions can benefit us in the long-term when navigating the landscape of uncertainty.
Even prior to the outbreak of the current pandemic, many at the start of the new decade listed that mounting political instability, greater economic interdependence, and rapidly evolving technological advancement were at the spearhead of capturing an understanding of uncertainty. Researchers began to use acronyms as TUNA (turbulent, uncertain, novel, and ambiguous) and VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) to better describe and institutionalize strategic foresight, tackle imagination, and build bridges between planning and operations for many organizations to better weave through uncertainty.
In many of these unexpected turn of events at the start of a new decade, individuals are confronted with the same thread of questions centralized on this primary theme: how can we become strategic and overcome our fears in the face of uncertainty? With the grip of uncertainty increasing poor performance, decreasing personal motivation, and producing an emotional detachment, it has been very observable for many to come home exhausted from work, readily and easily climb into their sleeping chamber, ask Alexa to turn off all the lights, and drift upward into cloud nine.
Micro-stresses are defined as small inner assaults that accumulate over history and detrimentally impact our emotional health and relationships. Uncertainty breeds micro-stresses across industries such as technology, biopharmaceuticals, finance, and even manufacturing. Individuals negotiating their day with uncertainty identify sources of micro-stresses in the direct result of the way they typically interact with each other at work and home. These are categorized as stresses into three realms: 1) micro-stresses that drain personal capacity (the time and energy you have available to handle life’s demands); 2) micro-stresses that deplete your emotional reserves; and 3) micro-stresses that challenge your identity and values.
Here is a self-assessment to better understand how micro-stresses and uncertainty are impacting your relationships. As many are confronted with the challenge of how they will navigate the micro-stresses of uncertainty in this season of TUNA decision-making and VUCA, solace and peace are within grasp during instability.