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Why does uncertainty cause stress?

Why does uncertainty cause stress?

4 min read
  • Stress management & well-being

Uncertainty is inevitable at one point or another in our lives. We may face a decision without enough information to help us make up our mind or there may be too many variables that can influence our desired outcome. Whilst unpredictability may be exciting at times, it is a source of stress for many.   So, why does uncertainty breed stress? And can the answer to that question help us better understand how to manage it?

What does the research say?

A study conducted by researchers at University College London found that uncertainty caused more stress than a painful outcome. This study involved 45 participants who played a computer game during which they had to guess if there was a snake under a rock they then had to turn over. When there was a snake, they received a painful electric shock. The game continuously changed to keep a level of uncertainty throughout. A few participants were told which rocks were hiding a snake and therefore knew beforehand when they would receive an electric shock. 

The results surprisingly found that participants who were told that they had a 50% chance of receiving a painful electric shock had higher stress levels than those who were told there was a 100% chance of being shocked. People become stressed in times of uncertainty because they are unable to prepare for the potential outcome.

The effects of stress

Stress is something we all experience. It is a normal reaction to changes in our environment and often makes us feel that we can’t cope with the pressure. There are many negative effects of stress on the body, from a weakened immune system to increased irritability. Not managing stress in the appropriate ways can cause these effects to worsen and have a further detrimental impact on our physical and mental health. 

Evidence suggests that stress can severely harm students’ motivation and, in turn, their academic achievement. Stress can be caused by many things – however being uncertain about the future or the outcome of a specific event can breed stress that is more difficult to manage. 

When students are preparing for exams for instance, they very often feel worried about how they will perform. The pressure can lead to them performing well below their skill level because the stress is overloading their brains and not leaving enough resources to focus on the task at hand. Cognitive overloadas a result of stress is very common, and its effects can lead to declines in all cognitive functions.

Research shows that experiencing an interference or overload on cognition is strongly associated with poor performance relating to memory and processing. When students are under a lot of pressure whilst trying to revise, their brains are overworked. This sometimes leads to them forgetting important information and their learning slowing down.

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Managing uncertainty and stress

The Mental Health Foundation suggests that a great way to reduce stress is to try and relate your situation with something you have previously experienced. By familiarising yourself with the situation, you are able to recycle your previous coping strategies or devise new ones to help you deal with this current problem.

A great question to ask yourself is: how is this situation similar to what I have experienced before? This removes ambiguity, which reduces uncertainty, which in turn boosts confidence.

In difficult or uncertain times, it is important to remember that we can’t control everything. Instead, we should focus on what we can control, which is how we react. Focus on the process involved to reach a specific outcome as this will help manage uncertainty in decision making. If you feel comfortable during the process and believe you are making the most effective decisions along the way, then you will have faith in yourself and your abilities. This confidence that you develop will reduce the stress that comes along with uncertainty and replace it with excitement and motivation.

Final thoughts

Feeling unsure about the outcome of a situation is something we face very often, and along with it comes undue stress. The stress lies in the not knowing, which we can seldom control. It is important to find ways to manage this stress by recognising how the situation may be similar to something we have previously experienced, or to focus on controlling our reaction and try to face every outcome with optimism.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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