How Uncertainty Causes Stress, And What To Do About It
Updated: Nov 22, 2021
The boat sailed gracefully towards the harbour over the glistening waves. People on the deck were laughing and dancing as the drinks flowed and the music played. Distracted, they failed at first to notice what was happening. The boat was picking up speed and soon it was hurtling towards the harbour wall. Onlookers gasped from the shore, unable to do anything to stop the impending collision...
This is an excerpt from my dream last night. And no, that was not the point at which I woke up, but I'll spare you the ending. A quick glance on the internet tells me I’m not the only person experiencing a surge in ‘anxiety dreams’ this year. Insect attacks, masked intruders, the zombie apocalypse - dramatic scenes and vivid symbols are cropping up in dreams more frequently, and we don’t need to be experts to guess why. The uncertainty around Covid infection, caring for elders, school closures, job losses, restrictions on travel, the climate crisis, not to mention the unprecedented threat to toilet paper stocks, have pushed our collective stress levels to a high, and our brains are working overtime to help us process it.
In fact, I’ll bet you’ve heard the word ‘uncertainty’ more times this year than in the rest of your life. And for good reason. Uncertainty acts on our sense of feeling in control. It is taxing on our mental energy stores and research suggests that it causes more stress and harm to our mental health than other types of worry.
And while it might be causing anxiety dreams for me right now, stress can manifest in a multitude of different ways, from relatively subtle changes in mood or attention, to racing thoughts, insomnia, weight gain or loss, reduced sex drive, digestive problems or any number of other physical or emotional symptoms. With Stress Awareness Day today (falling the day after the US election - coincidence?), there's no better time to take stock of how stress might be affecting us.
But what is stress?
When we hear people refer to stress they are usually talking either about the stressor or the feeling that the stressor evokes in us. A stressor is anything that causes pressure or tension on our bodies or our minds, and that pulls us away from our resting state. Whether it’s carrying a shopping bag, hearing our phone alarm or worrying about a family member, stressors aren't always negative, but they act on us and demand attention and energy.
The ‘stress’ we feel is part of our response to those demands - it’s the part telling us that we are running out of available energy to address them. Just like running on the treadmill will eventually make your muscles ache and collapse, mental stressors will tire your brain and start to cause noticeable effects.
Also just like tiring muscles, mental stress is totally normal and will affect everyone. If we can identify the stressor and resolve it to relieve the tension, our feelings of stress will likely go. But here’s the rub...
How do I recognise stress?
Our busy modern lives are not set up well to help us recognise or deal with stress. They are increasingly organised around mental processes like multi-tasking, switching between tasks and decision making, that are highly taxing but difficult for us and others to observe. So, because we can mentally multi-task (even though we are not as good at it as we might like to think), we tend to keep going until we reach a point of stress, and then it’s not always easy to step off the treadmill.
Further, because we are driven by the most complex object in the known universe (our brains), the way we experience, make sense of and respond to stress at any given time will be influenced by a whole range of interacting factors, including how we have experienced and dealt with stressors in the past, what support we have to manage the stressors right now, the culture around being productive or asking for help at work and at home, who is relying on us in the moment and for what, and many more. This can make it even more difficult for us to anticipate and recognise how stressors are likely to affect us.
Additionally, for many people, the first noticeable sign of stress may be a seemingly unrelated physical symptom, which is then overlooked as an indicator of stress.
There’s a reason that mindfulness is so popular. Putting the to-do list on hold and taking just a few minutes to try and check in with yourself can give you the opportunity to notice how many things you are holding in your mind and what you are experiencing in your body. This can help you start to recognise overlooked signs of stress; when and how it occurs for you.
Even if you have no previous experience with mindfulness, you could try this 3 minute meditation to get you started:
Note: mindfulness can put you in touch with feelings and sensations that your mind may have been blocking. If you have concerns about what this might bring up for you, maybe give this exercise a miss.
Instead, try spending 5 minutes each day or week writing down three stressors that have been acting on you that day or week. If you want to you can rate out of ten how stressed you think they make you feel. Then list three things that help you feel calm. This should help you keep a check on your stressors without needing to connect too deeply with yourself. Alternatively, a trained professional will be able to help you navigate feelings of stress or worry safely.
Sit somewhere quiet and comfortable with your feet grounded on the floor. You might like to be barefoot for this. You can keep your eyes open or closed, as you prefer.
Bring your attention to something internal or external that feels comfortable for you. This could be your breathing, a sound you can hear outside or a painting on the wall, for example. Just spend a minute or so focusing on the feel of your breath/pattern of the sound/visuals of the painting.
If your thoughts start to wander, notice where they go and then gently and without judgement bring your attention back to the breath/sound/visual. Your thoughts will likely wander again (and again and again). This is fine, just repeat the process of noticing and gently bringing them back to your breath.
After a minute or so, shift your attention to your body. Feel the sensation and weight of your body in the chair. Where do you notice pressure? What sensations do you feel? Do you feel discomfort or tightness anywhere in your body? You might like to scan your body from top to bottom noticing all the sensations you can, pleasant or otherwise.
When you finish your body scan, bring your attention back to the breath/sound/visual. Spend about 30 seconds here before finishing.
But what if I can’t resolve my stressors?
If resolving stressors is the easy route to reducing stress, uncertainty is the diversion sign blocking in the road. Uncertainty means that we don’t have enough information about a stressor or we don’t know enough about the possible outcomes to be able to take action to return to a safe and comfortable state.
When uncertainty around important aspects of our lives persists, it is often due to external factors that we are unable to control, and this makes it very difficult to eliminate the stress they cause.
However, in these circumstances there might still be strategies we can use to try to lessen the negative effects;
1. Mastery: we can try to access a sense of control and agency from somewhere else. For instance, I might not be able to completely control whether or not I catch Covid, but I can start eating healthily and doing more exercise so that I might be in better health to fight it if I do contract it.
2. Reframing: we can try to reframe the stressor so it seems less threatening. I may worry that working from home will mean that I’ll be more likely to be passed over for promotion, but through reframing the situation, I might remember that the time I save on my commute by working from home has allowed me to develop that great idea that I wanted to pitch to my boss.
3. Connecting: We can identify outlets for our feelings so they are less likely to build up and manifest as symptoms in our minds and bodies. Talking through concerns with a friend, colleague or trained professional is a great way to let off steam, prevent thoughts from running endlessly round in our heads and often h