“The only constant in life is change.” The one thing that we can be sure of is that most of our days begin and end with uncertainty. Even when you think that you’ve neatly organized your life to one of predictability, anything can change at the bat of an eyelash. We try to make the future more certain by making future plans and forming expectations, but in the end we set ourselves up for disappointment because we can’t control the exact outcome. So, we want to be smart and learn how to deal with uncertainty well. But it isn’t easy.
Our brains have been hardwired since eons ago, to react to potential danger with anxiety and fear. When cavemen entered unfamiliar territory, they didn’t know who or what might be creeping behind the bushes. Thus, being overwhelmingly cautious and fearful were protective traits that ensured our survival. Yet, thousands of years later, our brains remain wary and are still fighting against the unknown. Our brains’ system, which hasn’t evolved, can be a hindrance to logical thinking, particularly in making sound decisions, devoid of irrational and impulsive influences.
Neuroscience and Uncertainty
Neuroscientists have found in brain imaging that the limbic system (located in the midbrain), which is primarily responsible for emotional drives, is activated when there is anxiety or fear. This “feeling and reacting brain” trumps any logical or rational thought when in a stressed state. Furthermore, within the limbic system is the amygdala, which is the fight-or-flight center of the brain where it responds to potential threats.
When faced with uncertainty, the brain can easily become stressed and anxious, and if left unresolved, this can lead to chronic stress. And because your emotions are clouding your judgment you can find it difficult to trust the quality of your decisions. Prolonged stress can also lead to an overactive fear and anxiety circuit in your brain, which reduces the functioning of other areas that help with the inhibition of fear. All this means is that it’s important to gain control over your emotional reactions to uncertainty, and other sources of stress, and learn how to respond during those times.
How to Have More Agency Over Your Fears of “Uncertainty”
- Quiet Your Limbic System – Try to nurture your emotional intelligence. A person with a high EQ has strong connections between the emotional center and the executive (thinking) center. And because mindfulness is key in emotional intelligence, practicing mindfulness will help calm the limbic system and allow for better decision-making. Meditation is one of the best ways to become more mindful, but surely not the only way. You can also try stress-reduction techniques because chances are, if you’re dealing with uncertainty, you probably have stress in your body even if it isn’t exactly in the forefront of your mind at this exact moment.
- Embrace What You Can’t Control – We all want to be in control. We want to be sure that everything is in place and that things will be alright. But what if things go awry? Or if..? Well, people who excel at managing uncertainty aren’t afraid to acknowledge what’s causing it. They don’t sugarcoat any situation as better or worse than it really is, and they analyze facts for what they are. So, the only thing that you can really control is the process through which you reach your decisions. Don’t be afraid to say, “Here’s what I don’t know, but I’m going forward based on what I do know.”
- Trust Your Intuition – Trust your inner wisdom. And give it some space because it can’t be forced. Our intuition works best when it isn’t constantly pressured to come up with a solution. According to neuroscience researcher, Mark Waldman, you can master your emotions by talking to your intuition (which is governed by your insula and anterior cingulate cortex). Try building a track record and exercise your “intuitive muscle.” Start by listening to your gut on small things and then see how it goes so that you know to act with confidence and courage when something big comes around.
- Control What You Can – Oftentimes, we neglect the little things that will make our lives happier and instead, obsess over the big things that we can do little about. Focus on the things that are within your control, even if it’s as simple as walking the dog each morning or meal prepping the day before a long week. Create routines so that the structure in your days and weeks can provide some comfort.
- Align Your Goals With Your Values – Reflect on your core values. Have you ever acted in a way that was contrary to them? Did it feel a bit awkward or uncomfortable? If so, this discomfort is called “cognitive dissonance.” And when you experience cognitive dissonance you have to choose to either change your actions or change your values. Otherwise, the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or attitudes can lead to a lot of discomfort. Take the opportunity to reassess your goals and what you need to change. Align your purpose with the people and things that have meaning to you, and follow their course.
And finally, ask for help. If you’re having trouble managing stress and coping with uncertainty on your own, then seek a professional who can help you better relate to it. Being aware of, and understanding, your own responses to uncertainty is the first step in making the decisions that ultimately serve you.