“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft
There are many fears, but as Lovecraft wrote, the greatest human fear has always been the unknown, one of the great geniuses of horror stories. We have lived it since our earliest childhood. Not knowing what is in that dark room or who we will face on the pitch is always more disturbing than the realisation that there is a monster under the bed or that we are playing against the favourite in all betting games. Because the rival may be impregnable, but it is there, we know of its existence, and we can begin to think about what to do or how to act. Firm-ground that we cannot step on if we do not have any information.
Our brain, in the face of uncertainty
The reason that it costs us so much to manage the uncertainty in our life comes from the most primary part of our brain. As survival-seeking animals, we avoid dangers. And there is no better way to achieve this than to move on familiar ground, where we know about every possible risk that exists. What will happen if we do not know something or live in a situation of high uncertainty? The answer is that we will immediately recognise it as a potential danger.
It may sound exaggerated, but different studies have shown that we live more calmly waiting for guaranteed and anticipated damage than the uncertainty that this damage will or will not occur. This was verified by de Berker and his team when, in an experiment, they discovered that participants who knew they were going to receive an electric shock suffered less anxiety than those who were informed that there was a 50% probability that the spark would take place.
Not knowing what will happen to us immediately puts us in search of ways to act and put ourselves to safety. And not only that: it also installs us in a kind of hypervigilance situation in which we do not stop being aware of what may happen and imagining all the possibilities that may arise in the chance of this event happening. Something that, if mismanaged, ends up exhausting us, physically and mentally.
Because we know that an uncertain scenario can bring both bad and good news, but our brain insists on focusing on the negative in the search for these potential dangers. This is how it closes a vicious circle in which the more significant the uncertainty, the greater the probability of thinking about the worst scenarios. All of this results in more considerable anxiety for the person. This is not to say that there are no solutions or ways to manage all these variables to try to make them go in our favour, in life or on the playing field.
Taking advantage of the uncertain
You are probably tired of hearing that mantra repeated that we must get out of our comfort zone. But it is that, deep down and always with nuances, it makes perfect sense. In the same way that we learn more the better our opponent is positioned on the pitch, playing against uncertainty is a confrontation from which we can emerge more robust if we know how to manage our resources.
To begin with, because a well-managed period of uncertainty at the mental level can strengthen the learning processes of our brain. This was confirmed by Yale researchers in a study which result, once read, makes perfect sense. In a predictable environment, our brain relaxes and makes little effort. It is in a very undemanding scenario and, in the same way athletes without challenges don’t improve their marks, neither does our brain try to beat itself. But suppose the environment is volatile and the situation is changing. In that case, you will work hard to adapt to each new moment, thereby improving your tendency to absorb more information in less time. There is a balance between the expectations that the knowledge of the stable gives us and a new situation, learning that seems to oversee the noradrenaline hormone.
However, as we mentioned before, it is one thing to say it and quite another to do it. Anxiety can lead us to block, and any learning will be impeded by poor management of emotions. It is, therefore, necessary to accept the uncertainty in our lives without worrying about what may come, being aware that the different certainties will materialise and, if we continuously learn, we will develop ways of dealing with them. That will undoubtedly reduce our fears and anxiety, but it may take a lot of work before trying it.
Conversely, focusing not so much on that potential future as on the present has proven to be a highly effective tool against the evils of uncertainty. Because as we said, the worst of anxiety born from the unknown is not what will come because we do not know what it will be, but the expectation that we generate. That evil lives in us, and learning to live in the present can be very revealing when it comes to reducing anxiety in the face of the unknown.
A job that we can do alone but for which we should not be afraid or ashamed to ask for help, if necessary, from our coach, colleagues, or mental health professionals. Because it is natural to feel fear, it is likely the most natural thing in us. We must learn to have a healthy relationship with fear without attempting to hide or deny it. Only by accepting it and embracing it, will we begin to understand how to work with it so that it does not absorb us completely. And, with this, to learn how to live in this absolute chaos that is life. With its victories, its defeats, and what is to come. Whatever it is.
de Berker, A., Rutledge, R., Mathys, C., et al. (2016). Computations of uncertainty mediate acute stress responses in humans. Nature Communications 7, 10996.
Grupe, D. W., & Nitschke, J. B. (2013). Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: an integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 14(7), 488–501.
Massi, B., Donahue C.H., & Lee, D. (2018). Volatility facilitates value updating in the prefrontal cortex. Neuron 99 (3), 598-608. e4.
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