Many of us struggle to deal with anxiety. But is the secret to doing so found in building a relationship with uncertainty?
As humans, we rail against not knowing. We hate uncertainty. If you unravel our DNA, you’ll see that we are designed to figure things out, to learn, and to seek resolution. Our brains are programmed to hate uncertainty.
The reason is that not knowing what will happen disrupts our ability to craft a mitigation strategy for detrimental, irreversible situations. It creates room for danger. It invites our friend, anxiety, onto the scene — except he’s not our friend and we’d prefer he not show up.
See, the stuff between our ears has been programmed to take into account and process information about our past experiences, and combine it with what we take in moment-by-moment to increase the odds of our safety and survival.
When we don’t know what to expect, we put the burden on our prefrontal cortex, forcing it to make an executive decision. Whether that’s what we’re going to eat for lunch, or what is hiding under a rock, despite the wildly different levels of uncertainty, uncertainty it is to our brain, and our brain must, therefore, respond.
When our brains must respond to uncertainty, it creates anxiety, which is the brain’s automatic survival mode. We are biologically programmed to go out of our way to survive. I mean, it makes sense, right? We, as humans, will put in far more effort to remain safe and pain-free, than to seek out pleasure.
When we encounter something that is unfamiliar and we don’t know if it will pose a threat to us, our survival, or our ability to reproduce, we go into what is known as fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn mode.
Each time a situation triggers this mode, we get a release of dopamine to the striatum who’s job is to do whatever it takes to optimize survival.
In turn, our body reacts by releasing various hormones and chemicals into our bloodstream, including things like norephenephrine (signaling unexpected uncertainty), acetylcholine (signaling expected uncertainty), cortisol, and others. The sole purpose of this release is to get our body into gear and ready to survive. To optimize our chances of survival, this process slows down or halts all unnecessary bodily and brain systems.
You’ve Got Me Feeling Emotions
And unfortunately, our limbic system — the emotional part of our brain — doesn’t know how to differentiate between real and perceived dangers. By some bizarre failure of evolution, it can’t differentiate whether it’s a “I’m really hungry and I forgot to bring my lunch” sort of fake scary thing, or a “what’s the growling inside that cave in front of me” terrifying one.
Now, I’m not bagging on our limbic system. It keeps us safe, and keeps us human by inviting us to feel things, including fear!
But when our limbic system becomes overactive (for a myriad of reasons that we just can’t get into here), and then we experience periods of uncertainty on top of a revved up autonomic nervous system, the ramifications and neural circuitry we wire leave us vulnerable. And these continuous, but ultimately false “threats” exacerbate our anxieties.
This combination is especially problematic because over time, it leads to ever-increasing levels of anxiety with each new uncertainty we encounter.
Let me give you a super-oversimplified example. Each time we experience a moment of anxiety, this whole sequence happens:
Brain: I see a threat
Thinks : Alert! Danger! I’m not safe!
Feels: Fear, Panic, Anxiety
Behavior: Run away, avoid, hide from danger!
Nothing bad happens
Brain: whewf, thank goodness I ran away, that could’ve been disastrous!
Brain thinks: let’s do that again, so we stay safe
As this sequence happens again and again, your brain is less inclined to process the emotions in the prefrontal cortex that the limbic system generates. The brain is reactive, and each bout of uncertainty further trains it that anxiety is the best response the next time it happens.
Rewire to Re-Inspire
Over time, we form neural circuitry that affirms our negative relationship with uncertainty. We recognize uncertainty as something big, bad, and scary before we even have a chance to process it!
We CAN, however, interrupt the cycle and build a healthy relationship with uncertainty. Doing so requires that we lean into the uncertainty (if we’re safe to do so) and force ourselves to feel that emotion that our brain is otherwise shuffling off to the side.
By doing this, we disrupt the cycle and send a message to our brain that we can handle it, that nothing bad will happen, and that we can do this again, effectively reversing the cycle that got us here in the first place.
Over time, you get better at being open to feeling the emotional response to uncertainty before you react and, as a result, you release less cortisol and norepinephrine into your system. And, you start to wire new neuropathways in your brain that encourage a positive relationship with concepts and things that were uncertain. Eventually, and with some work, that positive connection extends to the idea of uncertainty itself.
Of course, that makes this reversal process sound a lot easier than it is. The trick is to approach this process tactically.
I mean, sometimes uncertainty is hard. It is.
And when it is, the first step is to pause. Learning to pause will keep you from running off in a mad rage to get ALL the toilet paper Costco carries. Instead, you need to pause and quantify the reality of things.
For me, taking the moment to pause, to recognize the uncertainty as scary, and then lean into it, allows me to recognize the reality of the situation and build a box around it.
See, it’s very easy to spin out and create an irrational number of possibilities, uncomfortable situations, or life-threatening scenarios — and we all do it.
However, if we can quantify the reality of our uncertainty and concoct a story to keep our fear within the realm of the “box” we’ve created, it reduces our risk of spiraling. It gives us the opportunity to ground into real, possible outcomes, and rationalize our response within them.
For me, just having those rational outcomes eases the level of anxiety, bringing me off the cliff of hypervigilence, of not knowing.
But this goes far beyond just the brief moments of anxiety that we might encounter. This is a serious problem, and one that’s getting worse. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in fact, anxiety is the most common mental illness, affecting 1 in 5 adults. And COVID-19 has exacerbated our global anxiety tenfold. So even if you don’t put yourself in that category, unwinding this process is essential for all of us.
5 Grounding Practices That Can Help You Deal With Anxiety
While I’m not going to pretend that there are any easy answers here, there are a few proven techniques that can help you cope. Here are five of them:
- Start by trying to (and this hard) pause, listen, and rationalize before you react. When we don’t understand concepts, feelings or things, we “other” them, which leads to separation and fear.
- Meditate. You don’t need to be in full padmasana, or lotus for this. Take a few minutes with your eyes closed (or open, if you prefer) and just take note of how it feels to be in this body and brain today, without a need to change, fix, or optimize it. This simple practice helps you gain awareness and helps make the first method a bit easier to do. (Note: Guided sit practices can be helpful for beginners, and more encouraging than a totally silent zazen practice.)
- Connect with loved ones. Our brains need connection – it’s in our DNA. When we feel connected, our brain releases dopamine, making us feel safe and supported, and helps us “recover” within our natural stress cycle.
- Move Your Body! When you move, your body naturally releases a whole host of goodies like BDNF, endorphins (permitting for the release of acetylcholine, a pain-blocker), serotonin (our gut-centric feel good hormone), and more! It also increases our “sixth sense”, proprioception, which is our ability to perceive our body in real time. This “sense” increases our self-awareness, helps us see how others see us, and helps us be aware of those times when we get caught in “panic mode”.
- Practice gratitude. Gratitude affirms that which is good in our lives, and grounds us in reality. This grounding heightens our sense of what actually is and helps to keep us from spinning out.
Let’s be honest, uncertainty — just like bills, death, and your spouse doing things that make you crazy — is part of life!
But it doesn’t need to consume your life or haunt your every moment. You have the power, through your micro-choices and with a bit of work, to re-wire those habituations.
I know it’s untrodden territory and might leave you feeling a bit uncertain, but you’ve got this. Really.
Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez and Wesley Tingey.