Uncertainty is a natural and unavoidable part of life. None of us have a job for life, a guarantee of good health, or absolute certainty over what tomorrow will bring. As the coronavirus outbreak has shown, life can change quickly and unpredictably.
The challenge for all of us is that human beings are wired to seek certainty. When we’re faced with uncertainty our brain believes our safety is threatened. This triggers us in to a fight, flight or freeze response. When we’re in a fight, flight or freeze state our ability to make decisions, collaborate and solve problems is impaired. We want to feel safe and have a sense of control over our lives and well being. In an uncertain world, our need for certainty fuels worry and anxiety and makes the management of uncertainty a constant in our lives.
From an evolutionary perspective, humans’ first priority is survival. We’re built to be able to anticipate danger, prepare for it, and fight against it. Think about our ancestors who had to be alert for anything, from predators to natural disasters, that might pose a threat to their survival.
Today, the dangers we face are different, but our brains are still wired the same. As a consequence, we react to uncertainty with the same responses as our ancestors. When faced with uncertainty our reptilian brain takes over with a fear response and triggers us to fight, flight or freeze. This response is great for fighting a bear, or out-running a sabre tooth tiger. However, it’s less good for figuring out how to juggle working from home with schooling the kids or preparing for a job interview.
Fear and uncertainty can leave us feeling stressed, anxious, and powerless. It can drain us emotionally as we worry about everything including the economy, employment, finances, relationships and our physical and mental health.
We’re all different in how much uncertainty we can tolerate in life. Some people seem to enjoy taking risks and living unpredictable lives. Others find the randomness of life deeply distressing. All of us are different. All of us have a limit as to how much uncertainty we can handle.
Three tips for managing uncertainty
Structure and routine. Having a structure to your working day, for example starting and finishing work at the same time, having set tasks that you do at set times, or having team meetings and 1-2-1’s at regular times, can create a sense of predictability that can help to counteract the stress of uncertainty. I wrote about this in my blog on tips for working from home.
Be aware of the meaning you’re making. When faced with uncertainty, research in cognitive behavioural therapy shows that people tend to overestimate the risks and negative consequences that may result from a situation, and underestimate the probability of a positive outcome. What assumptions are you making about the situation? What gaps in knowledge are you filling with negative assumptions? Shift the meaning you’re making about the situation by challenging yourself to image the best possible scenario.
Create space to reflect. To understand your reactions to uncertainty, create space for reflection. It can be helpful to remember that you’ve faced uncertainty before. How did you manage it in the past? (You’re here now so you did OK!) For example, allocate time with yourself every week to reflect on the week. You could keep a reflection journal or work with a coach or buddy up with a colleague.
If you’d like more help and practical tools to manage uncertainty, join me and over 170 other members over at the Lucidity Network. More information and sign up here.