I’d like to say that I’ve learned to embrace uncertainty. But that would be untrue. I don’t have so much as an arm around uncertainty. We don’t fist bump, high five, or even shake hands. What I would say is that I’ve learned to cope with it just a trifle better.
Needless to say, our days, our lives, the world around us – all are in a constant state of flux. From little things – the slice of pizza I’m eating right at this moment at 9:23 on the morning of May 5, 2019 is getting smaller and my stomach is getting fuller – to the really big things – the environmental devastation we’re causing may bring an end to civilization as we know it – everything everywhere at all times is changing. And change means uncertainty, and uncertainty fuels anxiety.
In fact, most of our anxiety comes from uncertainty or the fear thereof. A 2016 study published in the journal Nature found that “salivary cortisol confirmed that our stressor elicited changes in endocrine activity. Using a hierarchical Bayesian learning model, we quantified the relationship between the different forms of subjective task uncertainty and acute stress responses.” You got that, right? In English, what they found was that as uncertainty increased, so did the physiological responses to it. “All measures of stress, both subjective and objective, maxed out when uncertainty was highest.”
That makes sense, but note that stress peaked not when the chance of a negative outcome (in this case the classic electric shock that researchers seemingly so adore) was highest, but when uncertainty was. “When predictability was at 50%, when people had absolutely no clue whether they were about to get shocked, stress peaked.” In fact, when given the option of having a definite shock right then or a possible random shock later on, participants overwhelmingly chose to be shocked immediately.
In other words, people suffer most stress when outcomes are uncertain. If you’re stuck in traffic and you know you’re going to be late for that meeting, you suffer less stress than if you just might make it on time.
There is a lot of uncertainty in our lives right now. Namely, we don’t know how long my wife is going to survive her cancer. We don’t know whether she’ll be here in 2 years or 4 years or 10 years. We don’t know, from one PET scan to the next, whether the tumors in her body have grown, shrunk, or stayed the same. We don’t know if the tumor samples her doctors are testing will show a certain type of genetic mutation that will make another course of treatment possible. There’s a a 10-15 percent chance that they will have a particular mutation and a 3 percent chance that they will show a different type of mutation, either of which would be good. But for the next few weeks we’ll have no idea. And each new pain she suffers brings new questions, new uncertainties, new anxieties.
But as researchers have confirmed again and again that “intolerance of uncertainty is linked with mental disorders such as anxiety and depression,” it’s kind of important to find ways of coping with it. But how? I don’t pretend to have the answer, but this is my own personal approach.
Accept that uncertainty is inevitable, and if there’s nothing you can do about a situation, put it aside. We won’t know, for example, the results of the tests on her tumors for a few weeks. There’s nothing I can do to speed up that process, so there’s no point in worrying about it.
Examine your fears. And I have lots of them. I’m afraid that my wife is going to die and leave me alone with two kids. I’m afraid I won’t be able to support them properly. I’m afraid that our boys are going to suffer tremendous emotional pain. I’m afraid that she’s going to suffer ever more severe physical pain. These, I think, are all rational fears and ones I have to face. But at least by naming them, picking them up and inspecting them, I can both decide if they are reasonable and begin to deal with them.
Have a plan, but be flexible. For a long time I couldn’t plan, couldn’t think, couldn’t act. I was paralyzed by uncertainty and anxiety. So my wife chucked me. Tossed me out of the house and told me to get my shit together. So I did. Now I have a plan, a course of action. I think one of the best ways of dealing with uncertainty is formulating a game plan and taking steps toward implementing it. Will my plans change along the way? Of course. Some aspects will work and others won’t. But at least I’m moving toward the uncertainty with strategies for dealing with it.
Seek help and accept it when offered. At my lowest point, I reached out to family and friends and the positive response was overwhelming. (Thanks, guys.) I also started seeing a therapist. We all have challenges we have to face at times, but staring into the abyss of uncertainty with people at your side is a helluva lot better than doing it alone.
Focus on what matters. Let’s face it, we all worry about some pretty stupid shit. (How much time did I once spend online stressing about the latest follies of the Trump circus?) It’s important to weed out the extraneous, the insignificant, the unnecessary, and spend time and energy on decisions and actions that are more essential.
Uncertainty isn’t necessarily bad, and it doesn’t inevitably lead to negative outcomes. (Think Christmas presents and the endings of books and films.) But when the stakes are high, it can be uncomfortable, even terrifying. But maybe if we see the possibilities rather than the problems, managing uncertainty becomes a little less troublesome. Am I there yet? Not at all. But at least I have a trail map, and am learning to enjoy the scenery along the way.