Few of us relish uncertainty. Whether it’s a question mark over a job, difficulties in a relationship or unsettling developments in world events, unpredictable situations tend to trigger some degree of stress in even the most laid-back of personalities.
In part, it’s the way we’re hardwired: successfully anticipating an outcome releases the brain’s ‘reward’ signal, dopamine, while uncertainty activates an instant and uncomfortable threat response. A recent University College London study * highlighted how significant this brain chemistry is by demonstrating that the possibility of getting an electric shock led to ‘significantly’ higher stress levels in participants than knowing for sure that they would be shocked. In other words, we are better equipped to deal with guaranteed pain than the chance of it.
Yet, while we all experience uncertainty in a similar way, some of us undoubtedly handle it better than others. Some people even build careers on their ability to successfully navigate uncertain scenarios in life. I wondered what was different about them. Why, instead of becoming panicked, fearful and distracted, as I do in the face of uncertainty, were they able to deal with such situations rationally? Were they naturally more comfortable with uncertainty, or had they developed more effective techniques to manage it? Could their approaches be applied to my own ability to cope with it?