When thinking about this week’s blog I had a wee debate with myself – do I address the elephant in the room for many of us, or do I carry on with my planned neuroscience and connection theme. The reality is these are uncertain times.
Whether you are worried about the Covid-19 virus itself, the impact on your business or the effects of mass purchasing seemingly essential supplies, whether you are irritated by what feels like hysteria, annoyed that others don’t seem to be taking the risk seriously or happily trying to bury your head in the sand, it is unlikely you will be totally unaffected.
Uncertain times create stress and tension – as humans we don’t do well with ambiguity, in fact our unconscious will do it’s best to fill any actual knowledge gaps and create a cohesive story upon which we can act, (or react). This is in part why you can share an experience with someone and yet have conflicting memories of it.
Neurologically most people have an aversion to ambiguity when it comes to decision making. Back in the 1960s Daniel Ellsberg’s famous decision-making game demonstrated this beautifully. The game is predicated on simple gambling known factors against unknown factors.
In 2005, Colin Camerer, a neuro-economist tested this paradox while monitoring brain activity, he found that the less factual information people had to rely on, the more amygdala activity there was. Your amygdala is associated with emotion, particularly fear, aa well as the storing and sorting of memories, often ‘filed’ through their association with emotion. It also balances risk and reward and, by default, prioritises fear responses. Unchecked your unconscious will fill gaps in your knowledge with fear. It is this, seemingly irrational, by-product of not knowing that stops you focusing on the possibility of future rewards.
In our ordinary lives most of us don’t actually deal with much actual uncertainty. Most of what you feel uncertain about is, in fact, predictable, it’s socially based and related to how secure you feel. As your brain likes patterns, or habitual responses to certain triggers it is easy to repeat the same cycles, drawing on stories created from emotion, memory and incomplete information.
Of course there is a huge variance in how much uncertainty people can tolerate. Two people can have the same circumstances but a totally different experience, think about someone you love being late home, not answering your attempts to contact them, where does your brain go – are you catastrophising, are you unphased – or simply the parent of a teenager! Seriously though, your reaction will totally depend on your tolerance of uncertainty. Most people, even when excited by something, will also feel a little uncomfortable with uncertainty. At the other end of the spectrum anxiety induced by uncertainty is thought to affect 1:20 of the population.
Even if you are not particularly risk averse, most people will try to control circumstances to include more known variables and reduce the likelihood of surprise, just as demonstrated in the Ellsberg Paradox. The more you know the more you can predict what will happen and decide on ways to deal with it. When the outcome is unclear it is difficult to prepare, especially if you are splitting your brain processing between several possible outcomes.
When significant uncertainty arises, like major financial difficulties, significant health issues or major relationship challenges, anxiety increases across the board. The less control you have over a situation the higher the increase. Which brings me back to our current situation. Whatever your views around the newly declared pandemic, one of the things we should all be watchful of is its effect on mental well-being, our own and that of those around us. What is unfolding is the perfect storm of uncertainty – health risk, potential financial risk for many of us, lack of control and lack of knowledge.
Your brain will create a story or stories that enable you to process what is happening around you, it will fill in the blanks based on what you have previously experienced, what you choose to believe, and your emotional drivers – whether that be fear or something else. You will then unconsciously seek to prove your story right – it is no coincidence that you see more of what you focus on.
Our tolerance of uncertainty has diminished over the last decade, in part because we have so much technology at our disposal, it is easy to stay in touch with the people you care about, it’s easy to find ‘facts’ to support whatever you say, and it’s easy to create echo chambers from the places you consume ‘news’ – especially social media. Emotions are just as contagious as viruses and excessive or extended bouts of fear are bad for you. It is exhausting, quite literally weakens your immune system and prevents you enjoying your life. They might manifest as paralysing anxiety, but much more likely you will notice symptoms like poor concentration, increased excuse making, procrastination, irritability, finding distractions, refusing to delegate, double checking yourself, being distant or disengaged – this is not an exclusive list.
There is no magic button to turn off uncertainty anxiety, but the good news is that because it is created and driven through your brain’s limbic system you can go some way to creating healthier, more empowering responses to uncertainty. There are two key factors, self-awareness and control. Self-awareness requires you to understand the stories you repeatedly tell yourself, the excuses you make and the triggers you own. Control requires you to understand what you can impact, where you might have some control and what you might be concerned about but can’t change right now.
Here are a few strategies to help you maximise your awareness and control:
- Understand your triggers, they are the start of an emotional reaction – good or bad. When you are aware of the things that send you into a more anxious state you have a better chance of knowing when it happens and consciously intervening in your brain processing. Even a simple word with yourself – ‘I recognise this is fear talking and choose to let it go’ or a sentence that works for you.
- Focus on what you can control – you always have control over some aspect of a situation so to decrease uncertainty anxiety, focus on this. In the current situation it might be washing your hands , choosing what you read or give air time to. It might be building up your mental resilience. Choosing to act on what you can control calms your limbic activity and done repeatedly becomes your default way of responding.
- Stay positive – not for hippy, happy, clappy reasons, but because it raises your resilience, mentally and physically, start by consciously looking for and finding the small positives in everyday activities – there will be many you take for granted. This focus amplifies over time and creates an easier transition out of fear into calm.
- Trust yourself – if your internal alarm bells are ringing listen, go through the steps above and ensure you are not reacting to an unhelpful story and then take the wisdom your ‘gut’ or intuition is sharing.
- Take action on decisions you make it removes ambiguity – even if it turns out to be the wrong action.
- When all else fails stop, take a breath, well a few breaths really. This activates your parasympathetic nervous system creating a sense of calm, calms your sympathetic nervous system and reduces anxiety.
We may have an uncertain few months ahead, and I don’t write this from some place of judgement or even direction. I do believe we each also have a responsibility to each keep our own house in order, we need to look after each other’s wellbeing and resist spreading harm, viral and informational. I also recognise that it can be a concerning time, if you need to talk, want to share ideas or challenges as part of the Brave community you are very welcome to do so.