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Not Knowing is the Worst!

By: Tracy Stodart

Part of being human is our ability to think, and therefore worry, about the future.  We know the future existsbut especially in times like these, we don’t know what the future holds Some are estimating that COVID19 will deliver economic, social and political carnage. Is this true? What does this mean for us as individuals and what can we do?  The unknown can be a huge source of distress.   

I for one, much prefer certainty to uncertainty, and I’m not alone.  Research has shown that most people would rather get an electric shock now than maybe get one later.  Its apparently more stressful waiting and not knowing when the shock will arrive than the actual shock itself.  It’s the uncertainty that impacts us the most and we’re hardwired to react to it with fear.  

In a recent study by the California Institute of Technology, scientists imaged subjects’ brains as they were forced to make increasingly uncertain bets.  The less information the subjects had to go on, the more irrational and erratic their decisions became.  As the uncertainty of the scenarios increased, the subjects’ brains shifted control over to the limbic system, the place where emotions, such as anxiety and fear, are generated. 

This tendency lingers from when cavemen worried about what might be about to pounce out of the bushes, a time when overwhelming caution and fear ensured survival. Today, this tendency can be a hindrance, especially in times like these wheimportant decisions need to be made yet there is so little information to support our evaluation of risks.(nice!) 

In recognizing and minimizing our tendency toward a fight or flight reaction, we might be able to cope better in times of extreme uncertainty.  By acknowledging the source of any irrational thoughts, we might be better able to pack them back into the box where they belong and focus on the information we do have to go on.  To manage uncertainty, we need to let our rational brain take charge!    

When we’re stressed, our minds are flooded with negative thoughts, and these escalate the worry and anxiety.  In contrast, positive thoughts help reduce the fear and irrational thinking and can refocus our attention.  Take time to think of a positive and affirming memory and go to this when you find yourself stressed and worried by uncertainty.  Also, try to focus all your attention and effort on what you can do, despite the uncertainty, to better your situation. 

Also, in times like this it can seem like nothing is certain.  However, one tool that may help you manage thisis to make a list of what is known, gather all the facts you can, acknowledge that there are things you don’t know and make the best damn decision you can!  Doing this will give you confidence and will turn down the volume on the worry. When things are as uncertain as they are, there is no such thing as a perfect decision – we’re human and we’re fallible.   

When caught up in worry, we often find ourselves stressing over things that really don’t matter in the big scheme of things.  Working out what the big, hairy issues are can help us prioritise issues and park the irrelevant ones.  In the recent days, I’ve dragged my children through about 9 time zones to sit out COVID19 in rural New Zealand.  We’re in lock-down now and its serious, yet I found myself worrying about the kids missing a day of on-line schooling and me not being able to go to town to buy gas! Good grief!  

When things are as uncertain as they are, we hope for the best, but we need to be open to the fact that we might get it wrong.  If we can accept this, then we’ll also be open to making contingency plans and leveraging our rational brain in the process.   Considering what-if scenarios is importantas long as we manage any catastrophizing.  Ultimately, try to take charge, make a plan to the best of your ability and focus on taking action! And for inspiration consider this; you’ve already survived 100% of your worst decisions, why break the trend?! 

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