Dealing with Uncertainty

As children, many of us were often afraid of the dark. We didn’t know what creepy things lurked in the dark corners of our bedrooms. Although as adults we tend to be more comfortable sleeping in a dark room at night without fear of monsters in the closet, we are still often afraid of the unknown.

Uncertainty can be scary. Uncertainty is often uncomfortable and really hard. As humans, we crave certainty. We want to know the answers and the outcomes, and we feel more empowered when we have a sense of control and closure.

Experiences of uncertainty create stress, activating our sympathetic nervous system, which causes a stress response in our body.

In 2016, University College London’s Neurology research department conducted an experiment in uncertainty. The experiment proved that high feelings of uncertainty created more stress than feelings of clarity about impending pain. The 45 participants in the experiment played a video game where they had to overturn rocks and guess if there was a snake under the rock. When they were wrong, they got a mild electric shock on their hand. At times throughout the game, it was predictable when they would get shocked, and then the game would fluctuate so that participants were increasingly uncertain of when they would be shocked. What they found was that when the chance of getting a shock was 50/50, people’s stress levels were at the highest. When their chance was 0%, or 100% they had the lowest stress response.

This research suggests that uncertainty creates more stress than physical pain itself!

At a biological level we really don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty could potentially mean death, so we always look for certainty and answers. We do anything we can to bring an end to the unknown. Consider the uncertainty of COVID-19. This global pandemic created a much longer season of uncertainty than anyone ever expected. Western society values control, the rights of the individual, freedom, and certainty. COVID-19 challenged all of that! So much loss, and many, many months of living in the unknown. The uncertainty of COVID-19 has impacted many people’s well-being.

In the article Your Fear of Uncertainty Can Disempower You (2020) neuroscientist Beau Lotto says that people are more likely to feel disempowered when they are uncertain. He says that disempowerment also affects our perceptions. Lotto says, “So … what happens to your brain when it perceives itself to be disempowered? Ignorance, gullibility, delusion and even anger can ensue.”

When uncertain, we are more apt to perceive patterns that aren’t really there, and project meaning onto something or someone else. We perceive things to be bigger and scarier than when we don’t have a sense of control.

One thing we can be certain of in this life, is that we will have times of uncertainty. It is part of the human experience. Developing an understanding of what happens to us in uncertainty can help us handle it better.

As you move into peer support work, it’s important to remember that uncertainty will affect both you and the people you will work with. And it’s also helpful to know that there’s actually an upside to not knowing.

The Upside of Uncertainty

As we’ve noted, there are a lot of challenges that come with uncertainty. Now let’s look at some of the amazing things that are also tied to not knowing.

First of all, creativity thrives in uncertainty. In fact, creativity requires uncertainty to flourish! When everything is predictable and routine, it is less imperative that we get creative. When everything is certain, we can get stuck in the status quo. When we face uncertainty, we are essentially also given the opportunity to innovate. Risk taking supports us to build courage and grow.

The state of not knowing means that we become more open to new possibilities. That’s why paint-by-number is a much less creative process than grabbing a canvas, some paints and brushes and choosing to see what happens!

When we speak about creativity in this sense, we aren’t talking about being an artist. Rather, we are talking about creativity in our thinking and approach – basically, we’re talking about divergent thinking. Wikipedia describes divergent thinking as this:

Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. It typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing, “non-linear” manner, such that many ideas are generated in an emergent cognitive fashion.

We can’t be spontaneous and free-flowing if we are trapped in the predictable. When faced with the unknown, and we feel courageous and empowered (we might also be feeling fear as well – courage and fear are not mutually exclusive), we are able to think differently and see new possibilities that we simply couldn’t see before.

In the article Uncertainty: The Path to Creativity? author Claire Dorotik-Nana says:

Uncertainty also is where we find the very cognitive flexibility that creativity depends on. Creativity, after all, is about bending the rules. It’s about perceiving things as they have not yet been perceived. It’s about positioning reality in a way that it has not yet been positioned. And it is about flexing your thinking in a way that allows you to see new perspectives – and new possibilities. When it comes to creativity, uncertainty is like mental yoga. (2015)

Increasing our Tolerance for Uncertainty

So we know on the one hand that uncertainty can wreak havoc in your body while on the other hand we know that uncertainty is the key to creativity and new possibilities. That feels like a tricky thing to balance, doesn’t it?

There are several things we can do to support ourselves in creating more tolerance for uncertainty. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Normalize ambivalence.
    Ambivalence is the state of having mixed or seemingly contradictory feelings. We tend to want to be all one thing or another (happy or sad, dissatisfied or grateful), but the reality is that we can often feel many complex feelings all at the same time. It’s normal to feel fear and courage simultaneously. We can also feel feelings of sadness and gratitude all swirled together. When we learn to first identify these feelings, and then allow them to exist together, we increase our tolerance for uncertainty.
  2. Increase your tolerance for uncertainty by choosing it.
    Adventure and uncertainty are intertwined. One of the ways we can both have some fun and increase our tolerance for uncertainty is to intentionally choose adventure. We can hop in the car or onto a bus without a destination and see where we end up. Travel supports our tolerance for uncertainty, and it also stretches our worldview. If big trips are not accessible, consider small adventures right in your own town (e.g.. try a new restaurant, take a different route home, go on a new hike, shop in a new store).
    Another idea is to choose creativity. There are many ways to practice creativity; one idea is to pick up some art supplies and create something without the pressure of making a piece of art. Just create for the process of creation, then rip it up after.
    What are some adventures you can choose?
  3. Choose language that reflects possibility instead of single solution-focused answers.
    We can get more comfortable with the unknown if we shift our thinking away from being solution-focused, and instead choose openness to multiple possibilities. There is never one right way to approach a situation–there are many roads that can bring us where we want to go. We often want to find the right answer. But what if there isn’t one right answer, and instead there are several right answers? Choosing to be open to new possibilities both increases our tolerance to uncertainty, and it increases our creativity. For example, staying away from “either/or” thinking, and instead choosing “both/and” thinking supports building a tolerance for uncertainty.
  4. Practice self-compassion & acceptance.
    Self-compassion is about offering ourselves the same kindness and generosity that we would offer someone else. Self-compassion is a practice. When we integrate self-compassion in our lives, we are kind to ourselves when we mess up, because we know that all human beings make mistakes. When we are in struggle, we offer ourselves kindness, and we choose to self-soothe. Some examples of self-soothing are having a cup of tea, going for a walk outside, having a bath, laughing with a friend and listening to good music.
    What can you do to self-soothe?
  5. Be curious, ask questions–be more interested in the questions than the answers.
    When we are curious, we calm our sympathetic nervous systems. Curiosity increases our sense of calm. For example, when we feel stressed out and overwhelmed, we can get curious about how we are feeling and ask ourselves reflective questions. Questions like: What led me to feel this way? What if I approach this situation differently? What can I do to support myself right now?
    What other questions support this kind of reflective curiosity?
“The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”
~ Brené Brown, Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

There are many benefits of curiosity, which is why we picked it as one of our core values. Curiosity also creates opportunity for possibility and creativity.


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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