What’s more nerve-wracking—knowing something negative will happen or being unsure if it will? Research from University College London points to uncertainty as the stress-inducer-in-chief.
Imagine being told you’d receive a small electric shock, versus being informed that you have a 50-50 chance. Which leaves you more on edge? The study confirms it’s the uncertainty, as evidenced by physical signs like dilated pupils and more sweating.
Our brains crave a sense of certainty, but life often doesn’t offer that luxury. Interestingly, the study showed that people grappling with uncertainty made wiser decisions. Why? Because the amygdala, our brain’s alarm system, is less activated, making room for better judgment.
But how can you manage the stress of not knowing? Enter curiosity. It’s about changing your viewpoint. Instead of seeing uncertainty as a pitfall, look at it as a puzzle to solve or a question to answer. When you get curious about what’s making you uneasy, you disengage the amygdala and engage the prefrontal cortex—your brain’s learning and decision-making centre.
A study from Yale University echoes this, indicating that the prefrontal cortex is highly active during uncertain situations. Essentially, when things are ambiguous, your brain is in its optimal state for learning. By approaching uncertainty with a sense of curiosity, you not only alleviate stress but also turn a challenging scenario into a learning opportunity.
So next time you’re wrangling with uncertainty, remember two things: one, feeling unsettled is entirely normal; and two, that very uncertainty is a gateway for personal growth and understanding.
Can you recall the last time you learned something valuable about yourself amid ambiguity?
If emotional issues are troubling you or holding you back in some way, let’s have a chat. There is every possibility that I can help you quickly let them go, possibly in only a session or two.
- “Computations of uncertainty mediate acute stress responses in humans” by Archy O. de Berker et al, Nature Communications, 2016.
- “Volatility Facilitates Value Updating in the Prefrontal Cortex” by Massi, B., Donahue, C. H., Lee, D., Neuron, 2018.
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