The Stress of Uncertainty

We are creatures of habit, and the human brain craves certainty. When things go according to plan, we feel a sense of control. But when we don't know what is going to happen, when life throws a curveball, the heightened anxiety and stress that comes from the not knowing creates more stress than the event. Our current reality certainly qualifies as uncertain! 

COVID-19 has evoked a sense of fear in our lives in a way that hasn't been felt since the 9/11 terrorist attack. City streets that look like ghost towns, hospitals overflowing with patients, and the isolation of sequestration for an unknown amount of time paints a grim new reality.

Perhaps the hardest part of our current reality is the uncertainty of it all. How bad will it be? How many people will die? What is the best way to stay safe? When will it be over?

The brain is wired to treat uncertainty as a threat. And, neuroscientists know that uncertainty is more stressful than knowing something bad is definitely going to happen.

One of the most sophisticated experiments ever conducted on the relationship between uncertainty and stress was published in 2016. The subjects played a computer game where they turned over rocks that might have snakes hidden under them. If a snake appeared, the participants received a painful electric shock.

The main finding was that all measures of stress maxed out when uncertainty was highest. When people had absolutely no clue whether they were about to get shocked, stress levels peaked – even beyond the most intense electrical shock.

So what? Uncertainty is a source of stress beyond the thing we are uncertain about. Wondering how long we’re going to be in lockdown is more stressful than being in lockdown. The greater the uncertainty, the greater the stress.

When we feel uncertain, it’s human nature to try to regain control. The problem is that we often don’t do our best thinking in stressful times and we tend to focus on controlling the wrong things:

  • Food: In times of crises, one of the first personal behaviors to change is eating habits –eating too much, not eating enough, or binging on empty calories.

  • Possessions: Hoarding toilet paper might make us feel more in control, more prepared, but it doesn’t make us safer.

  • Numbing agents: Alcoholic beverage sales shot up 55% in the third week of March compared to the same time a year ago.

Chronic stress depresses the immune system and increases the risk of several types of illnesses making you more susceptible to viral illnesses including respiratory conditions like colds, flu, and the novel coronavirus infection. There is a wealth of research showing that some of the same strategies proven to reduce stress also strengthen the immune system.

The key is to regain control in ways that – intellectually – we know will make us stronger not just give us an emotional hideout. Here are five choices you can make each day to give your emotional and physical health a boost:

  1. Give your body the best fuel you can. Fill your diet with Immunity boosters like foods high in vitamin C and antioxidants. Citrus fruits and red peppers are at the top of the list, but broccoli, spinach, almonds, and mushrooms are loaded with all kinds of nutrients that will give you a fighting chance against the virus. Elderberry is an old folk remedy, but it’s loaded with beneficial nutrients. In some lab studies, an extract from the berries appears to block flu viruses. Click here for 16 foods that boost the immune system.

  2. Find old ways to connect with others. Facetime, Zoom, and even text messaging is a great place to start, but going “old school” by dropping a few cards in the mail each week will give you a boost knowing that you’re surprising someone with a positive moment. Many people isolate themselves when they’re stressed or worried. Social support can be a simple as saying, "I'm thinking of you."

  3. Create a new routines. One of the most disconcerting things about this “new normal” is the lack of structure and routine. The more unstructured blocks of time we have, the harder it is to focus. Try to establish a consistent sleep pattern to give your worried brain an opportunity for restful sleep. Schedule time for a physical activity even if it’s just a walk around the block. Add relaxation events to the calendar such as 30 minutes of reading time or gardening. Creating and maintaining a daily routine can help create a sense of normalcy and certainty.

  4. Look for choices. Stress that feels out of control can be overwhelming. But when we are able to gain some sense of control – even in a small way – that stress feels more manageable. Simply acknowledging opportunities to make personal choices each day can raise your sense of autonomy and normalcy.

  5. Give your worried brain a rest. Be intentional about giving your brain a few minutes each day to rest. Push the anxiety aside for 30 minutes to garden, read, listen to music, whatever works for you. Mindfulness is a great way to regain a sense of calm and control. Mindlessness – giving yourself permission to turn off your thought stream for a few minutes is also a great way to manage the worry.

Doing all five things on a regular basis reduces stress, strengthens the immune system and restores a sense of control. And remember… we are in this together.

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