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Why Your Brain Hates Uncertainty and How to Overcome It

Discover three strategies to build resilience at home and at work

We are living in one of modern history’s most uncertain periods. When will life return to normal? What will work look like? Will our families (finally) be safe? The list goes on.

A byproduct of the uncertainty is that many of us are stressed and anxious. That’s a problem because stress can affect our home lives and our ability to do our jobs. While numerous factors contribute to our overall mental state, uncertainty and stress seem to travel together.

In fact, our brains find psychological uncertainty just as (if not more) painful than actual physical pain. A recent study found that in a simulation game of rewards and punishments, participants who had a 50/50 chance of getting a painful electric shock experienced significantly more stress than those who knew for certain they would be shocked. It appears that constant “what ifs” are more burdensome than simply getting something painful over with.

But all is not lost. By shifting our mindset, we can leverage uncertainty to enhance our performance—especially in high-pressure situations. Here’s how: 

Lessons from elite sport

High-performance athletes often push themselves beyond their comfort zones to test the boundaries of what is achievable. To do this, they have to embrace uncertainty. As NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott once said, “You've got to dare at moments to see that you can do certain things. Sometimes you fail and sometimes you win. But the most important part of it is, did you try? Did you try to do something that maybe nobody thought you could do?” 

Sport psychologists say that this mindset of engaging uncertainty, rather than running away from it, is one of the defining traits of elite athletes.

So how can we use this mindset to enhance our well-being and performance at work and at home during these uncertain times? Below are three empirically proven strategies:  

  1. The power of mindfulness: Mindfulness entails narrowing our temporal focus to the present moment instead of being preoccupied with the imperfections of the past or the uncertainties of the future. It is one of the best ways to remain focused on the task at hand. Something as simple as a 10-minute mindful practice can lead to enhanced engagement, persistence and performance on a difficult cognitive test, for example. And by practising mindfulness in simple everyday tasks (mindful walking, mindful eating, etc.) our brains are able to internalize the skill and transfer it to more consequential settings.

  2. Lessons from acceptance-based therapy: Voluntarily accepting our circumstances (imperfect as they may be), instead of suppressing them, is one of the most effective ways to deal with uncertainty. We all hope for the best. But as the pandemic has shown, there are no guarantees in this life. Conscious awareness and acceptance of this limitation is one of the main reasons we find uncertainty troubling. Acknowledging and accepting it is an important step to overcoming it.

  3. Reframing: When we change the frame around a picture, the entire visual experience changes. In the same vein, the way we approach uncertainty has a profound impact on how we think, feel and act in a given situation. If we can shift our views to frame future uncertainty as a challenge instead of a threat, the narrative in our mind become more palatable. 

Though we all find uncertainty taxing, there are strategies to mitigate its effects. Focus on being mindful and staying in the present moment. Suspend judgment and accept circumstances. Reframe uncertainty from threat to challenge. These are scientifically proven approaches that can help us improve our performance and mental well-being. 

Faizan Imtiaz is a mental skills coach with the Fit to Lead Program at Smith School of Business and an assistant professor of human resource development at Towson University in Maryland. He holds a PhD in Psychology from Queen's University.