Why do we think uncertainty is “bad”? (and how to cope with it)

(and how to cope with it)

By Jola Vorfi

The word “uncertainty” has never been used, spoken of and written about more than in the past month. The question is, why do we view uncertainty as such a bad thing? What is it that drives so many people to associate it with fear, negative outcomes or anxiety rather than with new opportunities, adventure and novelty? The truth of the matter is that the majority of individuals struggle with uncertain situations. Resilience and having this ability to cope with ambiguity and change is something many of our clients look for in high potential talent, and we have been measuring and studying it for years. So, why does it happen and how do we improve? Today, I will run you through the physical and psychological mechanisms behind uncertainty so that you can understand how to better navigate through it.

What is going on behind the scenes physically
There are situations we just cannot control, like many of the outcomes we are experiencing due to the current covid-19 pandemic: job insecurity, health issues, isolation, etc. When we lose this inner sense of control, many of us feel powerless and panic, which automatically triggers a stress response.

What is going on in physically is that the amygdala, often referred to as our “reptilian” brain – which has for main purpose to protect us from threats in our environment – perceives this loss of control as danger. It sends a message to the hypothalamus, the brain’s command centre, which then activates the sympathetic – also called “fight or flight”- nervous system. This in turn, generates the production of hormones like adrenaline, which causes changes in autonomous functions like our heartbeat, body temperature and breathing. This entire mechanism is designed for our survival and we cannot change it.

Now you might be wondering: why would our brain interpret uncertainty as a threat? Let’s look at what is happening at a psychological level.

Our mind creates narratives
In order to makes sense of things that happen around us, we take “facts”- events that happen in the world – create thought processes in order to add meaning to them, and come up with a narrative that we associate to specific emotions. For example, if you got laid off from your first job out of school, you may associate a fragile job market with you losing yours and that will create fear every time you get a new job. Another example could be the story you have been telling yourself about how your manager always micromanages you because he/she doesn’t trust the quality of your work and as a consequence you have become extremely sensitive towards any feedback that anyone gives to you about your work. Our stories represent our version of reality; that is how we are wired as human beings. We continually tell ourselves stories – of success or failure about our work, our families and relationships, our health; about what we want and what we are capable of achieving. We are constantly creating emotionally charged narratives because they provide structure and direction to our lives. However, Dr. Jim Loehr, who studies the power of storytelling says that far too many of our stories, could be dysfunctional and in need of serious editing.

Now, let’s get back to uncertainty. The harsh reality is that most people’s first experience with uncertainty is very often associated with negative thought patterns and feelings such as fear, worry, anxiety or frustration – in other words, a negative story – which trigger a stress response. It is not a surprise then that so many of us are not really at ease right now.

The additional challenge with the current covid-19 situation is that you are not the only one involved. People around you are experiencing the same thing, which creates a collective cycle of negative feelings and this becomes an additional trigger for you as you are becoming a trigger for them. We either pull ourselves up together or we pull ourselves down together.

How to cope
The great news about narratives, is that they can be managed, changed and the cycle can be broken. Here are a few steps you can take to achieve this.

1. Shift your mindset
As simple as it may sound, one of the first steps into becoming more resilient towards a changing situation is to accept it because you cannot control it. Resistance towards what is happening will create suffering and exhaustion. Accepting the situation doesn’t mean that you are embracing the situation. It simply means accepting the facts for what they are, releasing all the “fighting” energy and emotions that you have been investing into the situation so you can allow yourself to be solution-oriented and positive. While resisting the situation will exhaust you and keep you stuck, acceptance will mobilize you into solutions. Ask yourself the question: “What can I change today?” and mobilize your energy towards it. There is a saying that says: “You can have fear, you can have faith, but you can’t have both, so you need to pick”.

2. Change the story
Stories provide structure and direction but a lot of the times, they can be distorted. Dr. Jim Loehr examines the way we tell stories to ourselves and most importantly, the way we can change these stories to transform our lives.

There is an opportunity in these times of uncertainty to transform the story that we are telling ourselves. Ask yourself: “Who are you born to be in these times?” Because these times can drag you down if you allow them or they can be the catalyst of you to rise up. If we are not feeding the solution, we are feeding the problem.  You could either tell the story of how the current situation ruined your life and those around you or you could tell the story about how a challenge that you are facing right now will shape you into a more resilient and more solution focused person. You can see these times as dark times, or you can see them as opportunities.

3. Don’t buy in to the collective fear
Because of the nature of the current situation, what you are facing is also being faced by people around you. The collective energy is dragging you down and while you are part of a collective environment, it’s important to remember that you are also an independent individual. You don’t need to buy into the collective energy. You can choose to see it, witness it, but detach yourself from the negativity of it.

4. Find what’s really important to you and focus on it
In times of change, there is an opportunity for you to consider who you would like to be right now. What would you prefer to experience right now? What’s really important to you? What are your values? What are you trying to achieve during your time on earth?…

Spiritually speaking, all breakdowns (politically, environmentally, economically etc…) act as clearances. Yes, things get shaken up and it makes them look worse than what it was before but things break down so they can rebuild better. Ask yourself what is it that you would prefer to embody and reflect to the world? This way, your thoughts, actions, words and everything else will be aligned with that. This will not only make you feel better but, will also have an impact on those around you.

About Jola Vorfi
As a Managing Consultant for Mercer Talent Enterprise, Jola works closely with clients and partners to identify, design and implement organizational development interventions such as leadership assessment, competency framework, coaching and training solutions, organization design etc. Jola is an accredited executive coach with a Master’s degree in organizational and clinical psychology.