Written by Claire Holmes, 10/04/2020
A Craving for Certainty
As I sit at home in covid-19 isolation with my family (a turn of phrase that feels oxymoronic), my thoughts naturally turn to the levels of ambiguity and uncertainty that we are all faced with in this unprecedented situation. As the saying goes, ‘there is nothing certain but the uncertain”, and we’re more keenly aware of this than ever in these times. As human beings, dealing with ambiguity is a difficult concept – accepting a certain level of risk and making effective decisions without having all the information does not come naturally to us – we’re hardwired to seek routine and predictability, to help us to manage stress.
Why do We Struggle with Uncertainty?
Our social brains respond to uncertainty in a similar way whether we are in a situation of mortal danger, faced with a work struggle, or uncertainty as to what will happen with our children’s education as a result of coronavirus. Uncertainty registers (in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex) as an error, a gap, or tension – something that must be corrected before we can feel comfortable again – our brains effectively flash an error signal - our threat responses are aroused and our working memory diminished. When we’re in a familiar situation, however, our brains can conserve energy by shifting into ‘automatic pilot’, relying on long-established neural connections, which allows us to focus on doing more than one thing. People crave certainty, as not knowing what will happen next can be profoundly debilitating because it requires extra neural energy, diminishing memory, undermining performance, and disengaging people from the present.
The Gift of Uncertainty
Whilst uncertainty can undoubtedly lead to anxiety, it can also symbolize opportunity and hope and can actually help us – it’s all about how we react to it.
Mild uncertainty is not necessarily debilitating – it can attract interest and attention. New and challenging situations create a mild threat response, increasing levels of adrenaline and dopamine just enough to spark curiosity and energise people to solve problems. Moreover, different people respond to uncertainty in the world around them in different ways, depending on their existing patterns of thought, and the ways in which they naturally think, feel and behave – in other words, depending on their talents or natural strengths.
We can Learn to Thrive on Uncertainty
So if uncertainty is unavoidable, with particularly high levels globally right now – how can we cope with it, and even learn to thrive on it? And how can an awareness of our strengths help us with this? All of life is uncertain; it is only the perception of too much uncertainty that undercuts focus and performance – when perceived uncertainty gets out of hand, people panic and make bad decisions.
Multiple studies have shown that dealing with ambiguity/uncertainty is a skill that can be learnt, and understanding our strengths to deal creatively with ambiguity is one of the most effective ways of increasing confidence, relieving stress and feeling empowered.
Understanding our strengths – that is, understanding how we each naturally think, feel and behave, as well as having more of an awareness about how others have different thought patterns to ourselves, can have a dramatic effect on our ability to manage and thrive in uncertainty.
We will look at some specific techniques for this in part 2.