Uncertainty. Why you must adjust

Author: Kate Cross

If there was a medal for the most uncertain year throughout history, surely 2020 would be in the running for top gong.


It is, after all, the year of ‘ifs’, ‘whens’ and ‘don’t knows’, of waiting for curves to flatten, economies to recover and that holy grail – a vaccine – to arrive.


Dr Nicholas Carleton, Professor of Psychology at the University of Regina, says that while it could be argued that every year has “a significant” level of uncertainty, “what may be unique about 2020 is the globally pervasive experience of uncertainty related to a single shared threat”. In other words, COVID-19.


Add to this the worldwide environmental, economic and political changes occurring and “we are seeing global galvanizations of uncertainty related to shared threats, and that may well be a historical first”, adds Dr Carleton, who has written extensively on the impact of uncertainty. 


So, what does this mean for our health?


Bad things, but some good too


The thing about uncertainty is that our ability to tolerate it depends on the individual and the situation.


In a 2019 Frontiers in Psychology paper, Dr Carleton and his team wrote that humans “typically find uncertainty to be aversive … and are willing to pay to reduce [it]” but in some cases, people consider uncertainty “attractive” and pursue “uncertainty-inducing activities”, such as gambling and watching sports. When you think about it, TV spoilers are called ‘spoilers’ for a reason, they point out.


Dr Carleton adds that depending on a person’s perceptions, “exposure to perpetual and pervasive uncertainty may actually increase our ability to tolerate [it]”.  


Daeyeol Lee, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience and Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, says “uncertainty is a necessary ingredient for learning”.


“When the structure of the environment undergoes major unexpected changes, previously successful behaviours often need to be modified, and more information about the new environment must be acquired to identify new solutions to problems we face,” says Dr Lee.


So, to some extent, uncertainty can be good for us.


But it can also have undesirable outcomes. Just think of the crippling stress of financial insecurity, for example.


Dr Carleton says that generally, uncertainty is associated with mental health problems, including anxiety and mood disorders. 


He also says preliminary evidence suggests that our collective capacity to tolerate uncertainty has been diminishing in recent decades, possibly thanks in part to our consumption of ambiguous media and pseudoscience, and the reassurance but potentially false sense of certainty we get from our ever-present smartphones. 


Learning to cope in limbo


Life will forever be filled with the unexpected. The American Psychological Association suggests the following to better manage uncertainty:


  • Think about stressful events you have overcome successfully – what worked; what might you do differently now?

  • Learn new skills during periods of stability to build confidence.

  • Manage your news exposure.

  • Practise self-care.

  • Focus on what you can control and avoid mulling over things you can't.

  • Seek social and, if necessary, professional support.




© 2020. All rights reserved.  |  Last updated: 15 • 02 • 2021