We live in an era of ambiguities and uncertainties. These relate to our jobs, finances, health, and the future. Here is a look at several ways of facing uncertainty in these times and standing tall.
Uncertainty and mental health
We must be cognizant of the health hazards of uncertain situations. A thesis titled ‘The Relationship Between Uncertainty and Affect’ was published in ‘Frontiers in Psychology’ in 2019. The authors establish a link between uncertainty and negative emotions. According to the research people experience ‘affective’ feelings such as anxiety, anger, frustration, and depression. This happens when they perceive they cannot ‘control the uncertain’. The study shows that uncertainty and affect are closely linked to each other.
Uncertainty in these times is more damaging to vulnerable individuals. A study titled ‘Uncertainty and Stress’ was published in ‘Progress in Neurobiology journal’ (Vol. 156, September 2017). The authors discovered that failing to deal with uncertainty causes damage to the capability of an individual to cope with uncertainty in these times. A peer-reviewed article on ‘Stress Habituation and Mortality’ published in ‘Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews’ also found a link between uncertainty and health hazards. Thinking about uncertainties can flood the brain with the stress chemical cortisol. The authors state that, “People living in a volatile and insecure environment (e.g., an insecure job, unhappy relationship, poverty, etc.) have a high risk of depression, cognitive impairment, myocardial infarction, and stroke.”
All of these studies show that it is important to manage our response. It is not uncertainty, but our failure to cope which causes the hazard.
Types of uncertainty
The kinds of uncertainties people face in their lives are classified into 3 categories. The most common is ambiguous uncertainty. It arises from lack of information. This is often seen at workplaces, although it also exists in other environments. Fear of the unknown is another type of uncertainly. It can be about the outcome of a job interview, or similar situations where the outcome cannot be known immediately. The third category is uncertainty relating to future events, usually of a monetary nature. The possibility of a pay cut or a job loss, inability to make mortgage payments and its consequences are some examples. Millions of migrants live and work in foreign countries. They regularly send money online to their families as remittances. These remittances are often the only source of income for millions of families in developing nations. Following the first wave of COVID-19 many lost their jobs. Acute financial uncertainty followed.
A study conducted by American Psychology Association in October 2020 found a definite link between stress arising from monetary uncertainty and chronic health issues such as diabetes. Stress from financial uncertainties is a common cause of several illnesses.
Facing uncertainties – How NOT to
We frequently respond to uncertainty with negative self-talk. This amplifies the feeling of lost control and frustration. It can lead to angst and other harmful emotions. The root of these negative emotions is too much emphasis on control. Failed efforts to regain control cause more frustration and disappointment.
Another variant of this form of response is too much preparation and planning. It is not possible to prepare for every eventuality. This is not a sustainable response to dealing with uncertainty. Aoife O’Donovan, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences believes, “…predicting and preparing for bad outcomes can take a toll on us psychologically and biologically.”
Facing uncertainties – The right way
The proper way to deal with uncertainty is to deal with stress. Mazen Kheirbek, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at University of California San Francisco considers uncertainty a ‘perceived threat’. He considers the resulting anxiety, “…an emotional response to a perceived threat that’s not actually there.” Stress is an emotional response. Reminding ourselves of this frequently can alleviate the stress. Being less stressed also makes us better equipped to deal with our situations.
Another aspect of a positive response is to accept what we cannot control. Amelia Aldao, a clinical psychologist and the founder of Together CBT, explains how grasping for certainty can make things worse. Wanting to know and control everything is unrealistic and stressful. Aldao advocates that “…acceptance is a big step toward regaining peace of mind.”
Moral support helps too. Seeking emotional support from friends and family can greatly reduce stress levels. An American Psychology Association study conducted in 2015 found that “…those who asked for help and support from their friends and relatives reported lower stress levels than those who didn’t.”
Facing monetary uncertainty
Brad Klontz, Executive Director (Financial Psychology & Behavioral Finance) at Occidental Asset Management, offers advice on dealing specifically with financial uncertainties. He calls the stress and shame arising out of money uncertainties an “emotional glue trap”. By not feeling shame about the lack of money we can avoid falling into this trap. We can then seek real solutions to improving our monetary situation.
It behooves us all to practice positive self talk. Let’s not choose emotional responses, but logical ones. As mathematician John Allen Paulos once postulated, “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”