New Year’s Priceless Gifts (2): A Year of Dealing with Uncertainty

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The second important lesson the past two years have taught us (read lesson one in this article), is strongly linked to our brain’s work; it is the importance of building tolerance for uncertainty. First, let us know what is incorrect with our handling uncertainty, and why our brain tries by all means to avoid it.

The Brain processes and predicts

Neuroscientists indicate that our brain craves certainty and has hunger for information as a top priority to survive; besides, it tries to avoid uncertainty, as it generates a pain or threat response in the limbic system. Why does this happen?

Well, when you face a situation without information about it, your brain detects something is wrong and this affects your ability to focus on other issues. That is because the brain has a very strict rule in this case: gaining information is rewarding and the lack of it is threatening. It does not require information to only react to this current situation; predicting what happens next is also very important for it, and to reach this state, it needs to feel certain and avoid ambiguity.

For example, when you hear something, your brain tends to hear and predict what should come next; when this craving for certainty is met, you gain the sensation of reward. On the other hand, during situations you cannot predict the outcome of or what would happen next, an alert goes to the brain to pay more attention, and it works as if facing a threat.

Ambiguity, Information Acquisition, and Dopamine

A 2005 study recognized that just a little ambiguity on its own lights up the amygdala, which plays an important role in controlling emotion and behavior, and is best known for processing fear. The more ambiguity, the more threat response, and the less reward response there was in the ventral striatum, which has an important role in decision-making and reward-related behavior.

Scientists also indicate that our brains seek information for the sake of it; even if it does not make us more effective or adaptive, it reduces the sense of uncertainty, and this is what the brain needs.

Another study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) Haas School of Business, has found that information acquisition has the same dopamine-producing reward effect on the brain as money and food. It also indicates that, sometimes, we may seek information about something just to know, without the intention to respond. This is because, we humans are naturally curious beings; we seek to learn and explore new things even if they do not have such great benefit for us. A widespread example could be scrolling down social media without searching for something in particular, just gaining random information.

What about the uncertainty COVID-19 has imposed on us?

This period has cast ambiguity and an inevitable kind of uncertainty on almost all aspects of our lives. Even running after the circulating information to be assured about what is going on and predict what would happen has come to no avail. Suddenly everything has got out of our control, leaving us stressed, fearful, with no signal to direct us.

Even though every one of us responds differently to uncertainty; all of us have a limit to what we can endure. The first step that 2020 has taught us about dealing with uncertainty is to accept it, which would help us get through such foggy times and move forward with fewer bad consequences.

The Handling of Uncertainty Manifesto

This manifesto is divided into two parts. The first is about a method known as “stability rocks”; a process or practice that adds something reliable to your life when it feels like things are going out of control to restore balance. These stability rocks can be embodied in your routines and rituals, such as:

  1. Waking up at the same time every day.
  2. Eating regular meals.
  3. Going to bed at the same time.
  4. Exercising every morning.
  5. Reaching out to a friend.

After freeing some space and reserving energy for practical practice of dealing with uncertainty, here is the second part:

  1. Turn ruminating into problem-solving by acting over the things you can control. For example, instead of worrying about the spread of the virus, take precautions and care about hygiene and follow the instructions.
  2. Face up to your emotions and do not try to suppress them, because dealing this way would make you more vulnerable to depression and burnout.
  3. Try to identify your uncertainty triggers and you will find many of them are self-generated through excessive worrying.
  4. Focus on the present, on the very moment. Uncertainty can leave you hopeless in the face of your fears and worries about the future, and paralyze you from taking action to overcome a problem.
  5. Recognize your achievements, no matter how big or small they are. You just need to take time to reflect on and be proud of your accomplishments.
Now, is not this a good time to embrace the precious gifts, which the past few years have brought to us?

References
au.reachout.com
bbc.com
helpguide.org
medicalnewstoday.com
neurosciencenews.com
nhs.uk
psychologytoday.com

Credits: Banner Image/Freepik

*The article was published in SCIplanet, Winter and Spring 2021 issue.

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