Science-Backed Ways to Manage Uncertainty

Jon Hawkins

How to stay focused on what matters when your future is open.

Our brains are hardwired to fear uncertainty.

This reactive response dates back to our caveman ancestors. When they entered an unfamiliar area, they had to tread with caution to avoid being killed by predators.

Thousands of years later, most of us still respond to uncertainty in the same way. A recent study by the California Institute of Technology analyzed participants' brains while they made uncertain bets — similar to those we make every day. They found the less information a person has, the more irrational and unpredictable their choices were.

When faced with uncertainty, the subject's brain shifted control over to the limbic center (where anxiety and fear are generated). This part of the brain clouded their thinking, hindered their decision-making abilities, and encouraged them to avoid risk.

That was great for protecting us as cavemen. But it hinders us today. Unlike our ancestors, we rarely face real threats to life. Instead, we build things up in our heads, worry unnecessarily, and fear things that carry almost no risk.

This primitive response to fear:

  • Makes us forget our lines in a business meeting.
  • Leaves us shaking in fear as we walk on stage.
  • Causes us to fumble our words when telling someone we love them.

In life, no risk means no reward. Sure, you should avoid life-threatening risks; but you can’t expect to get anywhere without taking on new challenges and leaving your comfort zone.

So how can we navigate those experiences without letting our primitive response get the better of us?

“When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.” — Winston Churchill

Uncertainty sparks our primitive instincts

According to Clinician Linda Walter, the problem arises because our brain struggles to distinguish a real threat from a perceived threat. So it automatically reverts to the primitive fight or flight survival instinct.

This forces us to treat all our uncertainties like a genuine threat to life. We put our business meeting worries in the same category as being eaten by a tiger. We tell ourselves things like:

“If this goes wrong I could lose my job. That’s a serious threat to my life. How will I pay my bills? How will I feed my family?”

To properly manage our uncertainty, we need to break this primitive instinct.

Silence Your Limbic Center

Writer and researcher Travis Bradberry tells us to ignore the thoughts from our limbic center.

This part of the brain responds to uncertainty with an instinctive fear reaction, which inhibits our decision-making abilities. It encourages us to overthink, which distracts us from the task at hand.

But spending hours worrying isn’t a good use of your time. It would be better spent practicing and making sure your worries never become a reality.

Bradberry states:

“People who are good at dealing with uncertainty are wary of this fear and spot it as soon as it begins to surface.”

They know worry is a natural response to uncertainty. But once aware of it, they label these thoughts as irrational fears. They put them to one side and do everything they can to ignore them. They actively work to prevent their fears based on the information they have to go on — rather than entering a state of panic based on hypotheticals and worst-case scenarios.

By refocusing their attention, their worries are likely to subside. They’ll be so busy working to improve their situation that they don’t have time to worry.

Of course, forgetting about stress and uncertainty is difficult. Thoughts will keep popping up. But now you know the role of your limbic center, you know a primitive part of your brain is trying to take over. You also know how important it is for the logical part to have the driver's seat; so you must actively work to ignore those irrational thoughts.

Yes, your limbic center is important for life-threatening situations. But it hinders our daily lives. So these people, in Bradberry’s words:

“Tell their limbic system to settle down and be quiet until a hungry tiger shows up.”

How I apply this in my own life:

I’m somewhat of a workaholic. When faced with uncertainty, I put any worries to one side and work day and night. Letting the logical part stay in charge helps me shape the outcome that I want to.

In giving it my all, I can relax knowing there’s nothing more that I could do. The rest is out of my control, and there’s no logical reason to stress over that.

So putting my limbic center to one side lets me create my desired future and rationally deal with any problems.

Focus On the Signal, Not the Symptom

When presented with uncertainty, most of us focus on what’s in front of us. We get derailed and dedicate our time to worrying about that very thing.

But that might not be the best way to react to uncertainty.

Psychologist Alicia Clark, tells us it’s an invitation to think about other things. Being nervous and worried can make us more determined and provide closer attention to detail. In fact, research shows students who experience some anxiety actually perform better on tests.

So rather than wasting our time, we should take it as a signal to focus on important tasks in our lives. In Clark’s words:

“What if your worry is actually providing the energy and motivation you need to solve tasks? What if your worry is actually an invitation to devote attention to your future?”

Rather than getting hung up on the symptom — feeling sorry for yourself and worrying — instead, use that as a trigger for motivation. Make a change in your life and improve your situation.

In doing so, you take back control of your worries. Rather than being a victim to your fears, you realize you’re capable of managing and preventing them.

How I apply this in my own life:

I hate risks. But I’ve always been a bit of a risk-taker.

Why? Because I tend to perform best in higher pressure situations. I create my best work in exams and I’m most efficient when I have a deadline. When I put myself in the right situation, I can achieve things I never imagined I could.

For that reason, I often seek out uncertainty. I put myself in stressful situations, and use the motivation it brings to help me achieve my best work.

Learning to accept uncertainty:

Taking back control when you experience uncertainty is important. But you shouldn’t try and avoid uncertainty or stop yourself from feeling anxious around triggers.

  1. No matter how much we try, we can’t avoid uncertainty. You experience it in every part of life: every time you cross the street, get behind the wheel or get take-out food you are taking a risk that could go wrong.
  2. We can’t control how uncertainty makes us feel. We experience, what philosopher P.F Strawson would call a “reactive attitude.” Fear is a natural, automatic response to the trigger of worry — we’re evolutionarily hardwired to act in that way.

Uncertainty and fear are a natural part of life. Hence why Melinda Smith, M.A. argues we need to learn to accept uncertainty. In doing so, we should recognize the chances of something bad happening are incredibly small.

Overall, Smith encourages us to percieve uncertainty positively. It’s a sign that you are living and taking worthwhile risks. A world without risk and uncertainty probably means sacrificing some of life’s greatest opportunities.

Rather than building it up in your head, normalize feeling uncertain. The more you put yourself in uncomfortable situations, the less likely you are to fear it.

Set Joy as the Default

Life moves so quickly. It’s one big adventure and your future is open. With so much going on, it would be quite easy to focus on uncertainties. To stress that you could lose your job at any moment, or don’t know where you’re going to be in a year's time.

There will always be something to worry about. To avoid that ruining the present moment, Linda Walter encourages us to focus on the joy of life.

Rather than letting our thoughts default to the negative, work to create a cognitive pattern and a set of neural pathways that encourage your brain to focus on the positive.

To achieve this, Walter encourages us to proactively guide our feelings towards joy and relaxation. Whenever we feel especially good, create a positive association by stopping and appreciating those sensations. By comparison, if you find yourself drifting towards uncertain worries — encourage yourself to snap out of it.

Walter offers a nice way to do so:

“[When you feel good] give your mind the instruction to seek out more of this good feeling in the future or simply say out loud: ‘I feel good!’ Put your hand on your heart and take a moment to acknowledge how good it feels.”

The best way to manage uncertainty is to train your thoughts to default to the positive and avoid the negative, rather than the other way around.

How I apply this in my own life:

I’m a bit of an overthinker. I’m constantly trying to better myself, to create the life that I want, or to make that uncertain outcome certain.

Because I’m constantly chasing, I used to focus on uncertainty in an attempt to control it. Is something going to prevent me from achieving my goal? Then I need to fix it.

Of course, with so much uncertainty in the world, that mindset left me little time to appreciate and enjoy life. So to shift my thinking, I set aside time in the day to consciously look around and appreciate the things I was grateful for.

Rather than identifying their uncertainties and judging how I could improve them, I am now able to appreciate things for what they are. Over time, joy and positivity became my default.

Final Thoughts

Our minds are hardwired to hate uncertainty. When presented with it, our brains gifts control to our limbic center. It inhibits our decision-making abilities and encourages us to worry.

That was beneficial for our caveman ancestors. It encouraged them to tread carefully and avoid predators. But it hinders us today: we rarely face serious threats and end up making a big deal out of nothing.

So to properly manage uncertainty in your life, you should:

  1. Silence your limbic center. Stop letting the worries it generates control your life. Instead, mark them as irrational, disregard them and let the logical part of your brain take charge.
  2. Focus on the signal, not the symptom. Rather than focusing on the stress and worries of uncertainty, consider the benefits that these feelings bring. Being nervous and worried can make you more determined and likely to succeed. So use this trigger as an opportunity to work on important aspects of your life and improve your situation.
  3. Set joy as the default. Life is full of unavoidable uncertainty. You need to train yourself to focus on the positive and avoid the negative, rather than getting caught up in worry and missing all the good in your life.

Learn to let go of your worries and live-in harmony with uncertainty. Life is one big adventure and uncertainty lets you be and do whatever you want.

“People become attached to their burdens sometimes more than the burdens are attached to them.” – George Bernard Shaw

I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential. To stay in touch, and to receive free and exclusive content, sign up to my mailing list.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.


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