The Science of How Uncertainty Creates Stress and the Urge to Quit
We have a deep need to close the gap between not knowing and knowing.
When stress is seen through this light, then our inner dialogue and responses make more sense. The desire to step in a hole while running a race? Brings closure to our questioning of whether we could continue at the current pace or not. The anxiety felt before a big game? Triggered by not knowing whether we could succeed or what exactly we were going to face. The last few minutes before we walk out on to the stage to give our keynote address? The nerves and doubts? Fueled by uncertainty. You aren’t quite sure how the speech will go, if you will forget some lines, or how the audience will react.
Uncertainty is a large contributor of stress. When we don’t know, our brain tries to fill that gap or force us to find closure.
Consider going for a walk down the street to pick up some vegetables for dinner? For most of us, we have no fear or anxiety, or doubt or dread associated with picking up vegetables from the store. There’s no inner war going on in our head about how we should drop the vegetables and run as fast as we can. We don’t stand in our home for 10 minutes, nervously pacing back and forth in our kitchen, asking ourselves why oh why do we have to go get vegetables. No, if it’s a simple task, with few risks that we know we can accomplish; there is little uncertainty.
Now, make that same scenario in an unfamiliar neighborhood in a foreign country with houses with broken windows lining the street. We might be pacing back and forth now. Why? You guessed it. Uncertainty.
When we find ourselves in places without concrete answers, our mind desperately grasps at ways to find some sense of certainty, or get us out of the situation. The more the risk (i.e. death, harm, etc.) the more our brain pushes us towards finding a solution. It’s this dual combination of threat and uncertainty that guides our response to just about any challenge.
Why does uncertainty play such a big role in how we handle stress? If recent research is correct, uncertainty doesn’t just impact our stress response, it governs our whole brain.
The mind is an uncertainty reducing machine. Faced with the reality of survival, the brain didn’t need a complete accurate assessment of each environment it encountered; it needed an actionable assessment. A focus on what seemed out of order or unexpected. To know what is abnormal, or uncertain, it first had to know what is normal.
According to the latest theories, our brain works not in a reactionary way, but in a predictive one. Utilizing past experience and any other information it has at its disposable, it predicts what is likely to occur; making its best guess of the world it is about to encounter and the best way to handle it. According to the predictive processing theory, our brain takes it a step farther than just imagining scenarios; it actually predicts what sensory data it should receive.
Take for example the visual illusion that took over the Internet, is the dress blue or white? If the dress simply was a defined color and that’s all that mattered, we’d all see the same color for the dress. Yet, the debate raged. Even something as simple as perceiving a color was not straightforward and concrete. Our perception of the color was based on an inference. We’d seen hundreds of dresses through the years and combined that with the sensory data coming in from our visual field and we’d see the dress as either blue or white. In this particular case, how one saw the dress, as either being in the shade or in the sun was a major player for what color we thought the dress was. Even when informed that the dress was the opposite color, we struggled to see it in such a way. What was going on?
When faced with a mismatch between expected sensory input and actual input, we are faced with our aforementioned pal, uncertainty. In our brains case, we refer to this as a predictive error. When faced with this mismatch, just as we would for any uncertainty, our brain attempts to close it. In the case of the visual illusion of the dress, our brain attempts to solve it without any need for conscious awareness. It faces the inner battle of “seeing” a white or blue dress and simply makes its best guess. Some of us see blue, others see white. If we change our expectations, we might be able to convince our brains that seeing the other color is the way to go. We can see the same “solving” of uncertainty in other classic visual illusions, like the picture that contains both an old and young woman. Our mind grasps onto its best guess and can change based on the information surrounding it. Or as scientists Andy Clark says “Perception, then, was not passive and objective but active and subjective. It was, in a way, a brain-generated hallucination: one influenced by reality, but a hallucination nonetheless.”
Visual illusions like this are not life-threatening. They are harmless. But what if instead of debating what color a dress is, we are debating whether that object in the grass is a stick or a poisonous snake? Does our error sensing and solving experience change?
The main difference is that we have a reaction and response to the potential snake that reaches conscious awareness. Our brain sends out an error signal. For many of us, it would reach a full blown stress response, with a shot of adrenaline flowing through our body and our attention directed towards the unknown object. For others, it might simply be a turn of the head to assess the situation. Regardless, our brain deems this important enough to reach awareness.
And this is where feelings, thoughts, and our urge to action come into play. As I outlined in Do Hard Things, we tend to follow a pattern during moments of stress and discomfort:
Feel –> Inner Debate –> Urge–> Decision (freak out OR find our way through)
Feelings and sensations serve a dual role. For now, we can think of them as messengers. The feelings and sensations that reach our awareness are not haphazard. They are there to help solve uncertainty by biasing us towards action. Think of them as conscious error signals and preparation mechanisms. The sensation of nervousness pushes us towards preparation for the unknown. The more uncertainty in the upcoming speech, the larger our experience of nervousness is likely to be.
If we look back at our evolutionary roots, feelings and sensations have a longer and storied history in our lineage. Our close cousins in the animal kingdom all have varying degrees of sensations and feelings. Thoughts, on the other hand, are a result of a further evolution of our brain. They serve to context, to allow us to do something about what we feel.
In the case of dealing with threats and uncertainty, thoughts are the last lines of defense. Triggered by the sensations that accompany a stress response, thoughts are there to push us towards a behavior.
The ultimate end to all of this is the urge. Whether it is to step into a hole or the desire to want to crawl into one. That urge is designed for one things: solve any uncertainty that might be a “threat.” At first, this urge might be faint, a gentle pull towards an action. We an ignore it. But as the threat grows larger, the signal gets louder and louder, until we cannot ignore it.
This whole process might be best demonstrated by holding one’s breathe in the pool. You dive under water calmly holding your breathe, cut off from any oxygen. At first, it’s not a big deal. After a handful of seconds, you might feel a subtle urge to rise to the surface of the water, but you can simply ignore it. You brush it off, knowing you have plenty of air in your muscles and lungs to push on. After nearly a minute passes, the urge has grown. Warning bells are going off in your head to breathe. You feel a rising sense of anxiety and stress. Your inner dialogue shifts to mostly negative thoughts and you might experience a “freak out moment” driving you to surface to the water. If you are able to make it through this stage, according to experienced Navy SEALS you have one more stage; the third and final warning. It’s there for a brief moment, a last-ditch effort to get you to surface, that your body is in danger. Ignore this third and final signal, and a few seconds later, you can experience what is called a shallow water blackout. A shallow water blackout is your body’s last line of defense, shutting the system down, and taking control.
We are uncertainty-reducing machines. Our Goal is to reduce entropy
Whenever we are faced with something that throws our internal state off-kilter, we go about trying to solve it. We search for the out, the behavior or action that will resolve the uncertainty and return us to our status quo. If we come across information that conflicts with one of our core beliefs, we may use motivated reasoning to justify or explain away the discrepancy. When we are a third of the way through a project, and we can’t see the finish on the horizon, we often quit to transform the unknown to the known. Uncertainty demands a conclusion.
As Scott Barry Kaufmann describes in his book Transcend, “our bodies are constantly attempting to minimize surprise by adjusting the response to environmental input…The more uncertainty we perceive in our lives, the more metabolic resources we waste and the more stress we experience. When internal disorder becomes too great, we are at risk of resorting to strategies that are destructive to others, not to mention to our whole selves. Our sense of possibility shrinks, and we are dominated by an exquisitely narrow repertoire of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.”
According to the Free Energy principle, stress comes from uncertainty, and the brain functions to maintain order–to minimize surprise–even at a high cost. Sometimes that means adjusting our goal from winning to quitting. Other times that means changing our expectations prior to even beginning a task. And still others, it means exploring, accepting, or avoiding whatever it is that has led to unease or discomfort. When we explore a feeling, thought, or environment, we increase uncertainty in the short term as we come across novel things. But over the long haul, we decrease surprise, updating our repertoire of experiences. On the other hand, avoidance minimizes uncertainty in the short term, preventing us from encountering anything new. But over the long haul, we’ve set ourselves up to be ill-prepared, shrinking our comfort zone to a narrow bubble.
Toughness is about making the pull for closure amidst uncertainty work with you, not against you. It’s training the mind to handle uncertainty just long enough so that we can nudge or guide our response in the right direction. To create space so that we don’t jump straight from unease to the quickest possible solution, but to the ‘correct’ one. Those are the tools I provide in Do Hard Things, and this essay outlines some of the deep science behind such an approach. We may be uncertainty reducing machines, but we can influence how our brain interprets, appraises, and handles the uncertainty we face.
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