Thoughts are not real, but that doesn't stop us from spending a lot of time letting them trigger us, particularly those about events in the future that haven't even happened. That's a problem, because the research shows we are lousy at predicting what's going to happen to us, and yet we burn up massive amounts of time on simulations of the future that are bogus and keep us from maximizing the present.
Uncertainty in volatile times is a big driver of "future" stress. We are born to make our world familiar, since that is the safer path. The unknown is risky, a realm of any number of potential dangers that we are prone to worry about when there is no clarity.
GET OUT OF THE PREDICTION BUSINESS
Yet we don't do ourselves any favors by worrying about what's going to happen in the future. Studies show that we vastly overestimate the outcomes of future negative scenarios, from how long the negative consequences will last to the intensity of the experience (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg).
What we are very good at is turning the bad forecasting into stress, since a good chunk of stress is taken up by projecting future calamities. We fall prey to what are known as mental simulations about what might lie ahead, and those tend to be scary. Imaginations run wild with worst-case scenarios.
One psychological model, the Uncertainty and Anticipation Model of Anxiety, argues that the source of clinical anxiety disorders can be tied to ruminations about the probability and cost of future threats—that we misestimate profoundly.
Since we are terrible at divining the future, cutting the amount of time we spend forecasting future dreads would be a big help in navigating the ether of the indeterminant world we live in. You can start to manage uncertainty, then, by getting out of the prediction business, by catching yourself any time your brain starts to lapse into future horror stories.
UNCERTAINTY AND THE DARK SIDE
The problem is mental simulations. For a species that doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, it would be very helpful for survival to have as much in the immediate environment under control and familiar as possible. And that’s what we have tried to do for millennia, aided by the brain’s knack for leaping to the negative. When we encounter the unknown, the mind errs on the side of the bad outcome, no doubt an adaptive process that has helped us make it to the 21stcentury.
The process itself isn’t the problem. We use simulations every day for events miniscule (if I tried this release, my bowling score would improve) to large (visualizing yourself getting a Master’s degree). It’s just that uncertainty spins everything to the dark side.
Personal uncertainty upends our efforts to make the world make sense and have a semblance of meaning, both of which offer a measure of control and purpose in a world that is lot more out of control than we like to admit.
Researcher R. Nicholas Carleton of the University of Regina in Canada says fear of the unknown may be the fundamental fear of human beings, something so much a part of our experience that it appears to be a separate emotion. He defines this fear as “an individual’s dispositional incapacity to endure the aversive response triggered by the perceived absence of salient, key, or sufficient information, and sustained by the associated perception of uncertainty.”
NEGATIVE MOOD INCREASES BAD FORECASTS
The “aversive response” to the unknown sets off the stress response, and immediate off-the-shelf questions such as "why" and "what's next" and thinking traps that lead to awfulizing about the future. A negative emotional state, especially stress, causes us to dramatically overestimate bad outcomes ahead. One fascinating study that had subjects read a story of a tragic death found that it led to an overestimation of negative future events by 75% (Johnson, Traversky). Fearful people have been found to make much more pessimistic calculations about risk.
So the mood we’re in and how we navigate it is a key lever in preventing simulations that drive anxiety. Avoid mental simulations about the future when you are in a negative mood. Try it when you’re in a better frame of mind. This means raising awareness, so that you can catch yourself when you're in a low mood and put off future imaginings for another time.
The key to defeating stress is being able to appraise the threat in a way that allows you to change its power, from something that overwhelms your capacity to handle it to something controllable. You can do that by vetting catastrophic thoughts of the future with questions such as: That's not true because...And a more productive way to see this is...
Another way to challenge thoughts is to see them as thoughts, not self-definitions. Emotions attach themselves to words in our verbal universe in habitual ways, making it seem that dire thoughts are real or definitions of who we are, when they are just thoughts.
Steven Hayes of the University of Nevada calls this cognitive fusion. The thought in your head says, I can’t take this any longer, I’m losing it, as if your first name was Losing It. Instead, tell yourself, “I’m having the thought that I can’t take this anymore,” or “I’m having the feeling of losing it.” Labeling your thoughts as thoughts or feelings, which he calls cognitive defusion, separates you from knee-jerk, emotion-word fusings that hold you hostage to false beliefs.
IT'S NOT FOREVER
The tough part of uncertainty, of course, is the lack of an end-date. But all periods of high-anxiety uncertainty are temporary, and this reality is important to reframing the story to something survivable that can tune down the anxiety.
Stress and pessimism fuel a distorted belief that the stressful situation is permanent. It’s taking forever. When the uncertainty builds, keep reminding yourself it’s temporary. Keep a log of the positive things that happen each day. Those help build up the engine of resilience, optimism.
You don’t have to know the future to be able to live in the present. The opposite is also true. The more caught up we are in living for tomorrow, the less we can live now in the only tense available for that activity. Trying to find absolute security in a world that is fundamentally insecure drives insecurity and anxiety.
UNCERTAINTY TOLERANCE BUILDS RESILIENCE
People who are higher in uncertainty tolerance are more likely to report lower negative affect and higher life satisfaction. You become more resilient and able to bounce back. People with high uncertainty tolerance also are more adaptable, something essential to progress and growth.
Another key to managing the unknown and anxiety is taking a problem-solving approach instead of an emotion-based one. If you can’t solve the problem, don’t despair. Come back to it and look at it from different approaches. You improvise, experiment. It’s a work in progress. You answer anxiety with factual reality, with workarounds that give you a perception of more control.
The reality is we are all in a marathon, not a sprint. We have to pace ourselves, be patient, and see ourselves crossing the finish line on the other side of the crisis.
If you would like to help your team manage uncertainty and stress as well as stress and pressures on the job, click the button below for details on my Calm in the Storm Stress Management program.