Today Feels Impossible. Here’s How Science Suggests We Cope.

Uncertainty can hijack our planning machinery and weaponize it against us

Illustration: Sophi Gullbrants

Election Day 2020 is here, finally. And now, after all the waiting, it’s time to wait some more. Who will win? What will that win look like? When will we know for sure? Hard to say. Throw in all the open questions about the coronavirus, and the current moment’s level of unpredictability feels off the charts.

For many, all this uncertainty is likely to be distressing — if not downright destabilizing.

“Some people have the ability to sit with uncertainty and to let go of it — to not fret about it,” says Michelle Newman, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Anxiety and Depression Research at the Pennsylvania State University. “But others respond to uncertainty with worrying. And if the thing you’re worried about is out of your control, then the worrying doesn’t help anything. It just makes you miserable.”

Human beings are inveterate planners. The brain’s capacity to construct hypotheticals — to imagine future scenarios and adjust behavior accordingly — is one of the defining traits of our species. But while our ability to anticipate and plan can be an asset, it can also act like a bug in our programming. Uncertainty — either a little or a lot, depending on the person — can hijack our planning machinery and weaponize it against us. For some, uncertainty is the lifeblood of anxiety, paranoia, and psychological dysfunction.

How uncertainty agitates and unsettles

For a 2011 study published in the journal Behavior Therapy, people placed bets in a variety of gambling scenarios. In one of those scenarios, people could opt for either poor odds and a low payout, or improved odds and a higher payout. The catch: If they chose the crummy bet, they would learn its outcome immediately; if they wanted the better odds and payout, they would have to wait for an uncertain period of time before learning if they’d won.

Not everyone took the favorable odds and higher payout. For some, removing the element of waiting and uncertainty made the bad bet appealing. “Higher levels of intolerance of uncertainty were associated with a tendency to select the immediately available, but less valuable and less probable rewards,” the authors of that study wrote in their paper.

“If the thing you’re worried about is out of your control, then the worrying doesn’t help anything. It just makes you miserable.”

While the phrase “intolerance of uncertainty” probably isn’t on many people’s radar, it’s one that comes up often in the scholarly literature on anxiety. “A lot of the research has shown that people who are uncomfortable with uncertainty are more likely to be anxious and are more likely to make choices that in the long run will benefit them less, just because [those choices] resolve the uncertainty,” Newman says.

A person’s outlook on life plays a role here. In situations of uncertainty, the outcome is often as likely to be positive as negative. But people who are uncomfortable with uncertainty tend to fixate on bad or worst-case scenarios, even when those scenarios are farfetched, Newman explains.

She says that when these types are asked why they engage in this kind of “catastrophizing,” they tend to offer two explanations: First, that worrying helps them come up with solutions that could mitigate or prevent the worst-case scenario from happening. But if the focus of a person’s anxiety — like the outcome of an election — is something over which that person has little control, worrying about it is almost wholly unproductive.

The second explanation that worriers give is that they are attempting to prepare themselves, psychologically and emotionally, for a negative event or outcome. But this approach is often counterproductive. “When your brain tags something as negative or a source of worry, it becomes more vigilant for reminders or cues associated with that [negative thing],” says Tor Wager, PhD, a distinguished professor in neuroscience at Dartmouth College. So if you’re concerned about the wrong candidate winning an election, you’ll tend to read or watch or listen to any sources of information concerning that event. Not only that, but Wager says that you’ll also gravitate toward information that seems to reinforce or support your concerns.

In this way, uncertainty is often transformed into dread. And dread does not make a dreaded situation any more tolerable if it comes to pass. “If you anticipate that something will be negative, it often makes that negative outcome worse,” he says. For example, imagine that you’re about to get a needle injection. “If I tell you this is going to be really painful, your experience is going to be pulled toward that expectation,” he says. “Your expectations make the pain worse.” That’s true of an injection, and it could be true of an election outcome, he adds.

“Research has shown that people who are uncomfortable with uncertainty are more likely to be anxious and are more likely to make choices that in the long run will benefit them less, just because [those choices] resolve the uncertainty.”

The art of distraction

None of this is to say that thinking about negative outcomes — or even imagining worst-case scenarios — is always unhelpful during periods of uncertainty. Bad things do happen. Anticipating them can help a person avoid some or all of the fallout.

But as with so much else in life, balance and moderation are the ingredients that keep these behaviors from slipping into the realm of pathology. If you’re spending hours and hours each day worrying about the election’s outcome, the bulk of that time — or all of it — is likely interfering with the rest of your life and maybe also skewing your perspectives and behavior in insidious ways.

How can people achieve balance and become comfortable with a measure of uncertainty?

Newman says that mindfulness training can be helpful. “Worrying is all about the future, and it takes us away from what’s happening now,” she explains. “Being in the moment and embracing the moment, which is a component of mindfulness, can stop us from worrying about what may or may not happen.” Mindfulness can also help people recognize when their mind is engaged in unhelpful worrying, and it can help them flag behaviors that tend to promote those worries.

Another approach to managing uncertainty: Distract your mind with something else. “The brain is always making new neural connections or strengthening existing ones depending on what we’re spending our time doing,” says Jack Nitschke, PhD, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “A lot of us spend our time doing things we’d rather not get better at, like worrying about the future.”

Engaging your brain with activities that take your mind off your worries and that encourage happier, healthier thought patterns — stuff like talking with friends, listening to music, getting some exercise, cooking a favorite dish, or streaming a funny show — can cut down the time your brain might otherwise spend mired in uncertainty-fueled states of anxiety. “You want to build up neural connections that support positive behaviors, not negative behaviors,” Nitschke adds.

It’s been said that the only thing certain in life is uncertainty — that change is life’s one constant. The ability to accept and tolerate uncertainty may be one of the most useful skills a person could cultivate.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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