Hidden signs that uncertainty is affecting your mental health… and how to manage it

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Another blog post about uncertainty? I know. How very 2020. I wrote this one because, despite all of the advice available to us right now, this is one I haven’t read yet (bear with me!)…

When faced with any kind of threat to our safety, our brain chooses one of three responses: fight, flight or freeze. These reactions are our body’s natural way of alerting us to fear or danger, putting us straight into action. So it might feel like you want to escape, or you just can’t move, but that is your body keeping you safe. That’s reassuring, right?

This way of our body protecting us does mean that we naturally avoid uncertainty for fear of a negative outcome. Instead we have to find ways to cope with our responses to it. As soon as our brain finds uncertainty, it reacts to it. Without developing new thought patterns to challenge this, our brains will continue to jump to defence mode. This means in times of increased uncertainty, there is the potential for this response to also increase, having a noticeable affect on our mental health.

We are managing and coping with a lot of uncertainty at the moment. It is accepted that this is not easy, but how do you know when uncertainty is having an adverse impact on your mental health, even if it isn’t obvious? Here are some less-obvious signs to be aware of:

  • Second guessing: constantly trying to imagine what might happen next to make up for a lack of certainty can increase stress, pressure and anxiety levels
  • Over-planning: being more prepared than usual, or re-arranging and re-forming new plans in an attempt to be prepared for any eventuality in an attempt to minimise uncertainty can also lead to stress, anxiety and depression if expectations are not met
  • Interrogating: a pro-active and aggressive quest for answers can be a natural ‘fight’ response to fear, but can increase stress levels if answers are not found
  • Blaming: this is a usual reaction to change, but pro-longed periods being angry or resistant to change can develop negative thought patterns and habits

We can train our brain to stop going into full fight-flight-freeze mode when faced with uncertainty by removing the association with a negative outcome. What that means, is that we need to embrace uncertainty in order to be able to accept it.

Well that doesn’t sound much fun, I hear you say! Stepping outside of our comfort zones is not known for being immediately fun, no, but it is the most rewarding route to personal growth.

The good thing is that stress and fear are adaptive. In short, this means that there are different ways in which we can utilise them. Whilst both often have negative connotations, they exist for our benefit (to protect us!). The key thing to remember here is that feeling fear or stress can have a positive outcome.

When faced with uncertainty, our brains do what they can to avoid it. Once you know your cues (it could be anything from sweaty palms, feeling flushed to running in the opposite direction) and if you’re ready, you can challenge it and break free from old ways of thinking. Try these 3 steps, as one way to do just that:

  1. Stop and question the perceived threat: what is the worst case scenario here? Is it really that bad? Can I maintain personal safety if I don’t react to the fear?
  2. Take control of your physiological responses: force your brain into a calmer state through deep breathing, in an anti-flight-or-flight response, disassociating stress with uncertainty.
  3. Give yourself direction: how do you want to feel, act and react? Focusing on where you want to be, not what you are uncertain about, can shift your responses.

These steps repeated can help you change the inner beliefs you hold about uncertainty and the habits you have formed that shape how you manage it.

What this effectively enables us to do, is to train our brains to increase our ‘optimism bias’ (which enables us to focus on the positive) and balance out all of that ‘negativity bias’. It brings our brains to a more neutral state, so we are able to more effectively manage uncertainty when faced with it

Here are some bonuses you will get from developing your tolerance of uncertainty:

  • a growth, rather than fixed mindset, which brings long-term benefits when adapting to change and uncertainty
  • increased resilience, enabling you to continue to face and manage challenges
  • improved performance, as a result of being able to react more neutrally
  • greater self-awareness, as you explore what you are capable of

There is a lot of advice available to us about how to manage uncertainty, but ultimately the benefit is found in how we manage our reactions. The uncertainty itself is something we can and will learn to accept, if we work on it. It is not always easy to spot the impact of change and sometimes it is even harder to get out of it, but in time, positive action does lead to positive results.

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