TIME Stress

Here’s Why Uncertainty Makes You So Miserable

Knowing something bad is coming is more bearable than uncertainty

People like to know what’s coming for them, even if it’s bad, a new study suggests. A small study published Tuesday found that people are more stressed out when there is the possibility they will experience discomfort as opposed to when they knew for sure something bad is coming.

In the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, people were shown a bunch of rocks and were asked to guess whether a snake was underneath them. When a snake was under the rock, the men and women received an electric shock on the back of their hand. The researchers measured how stressed the individuals felt and looked at physical markers of stress like pupil dilation and sweat. They found that most of the men and women felt more stressed when they were uncertain, compared to when they knew definitively the shock was coming.

Of course, there are many day-to-day situations sans snakes and shocks where this kind of thing plays out. “Knowing for sure that your plane was cancelled might be less stressful than being kept in nervous suspense as it is repeatedly delayed,” says lead study author Archy de Berker, of the University College London. “Another might be waiting for medical results. If you’re confident that it’s gone well, or you’re certain it’s gone badly, you might not be as stressed as when you’re completely uncertain about the outcome.”

The researchers acknowledge that the study was small, but that it nevertheless adds nuance to the understanding of how people respond to stress. “Uncertainty is difficult for the brain because it makes it hard to figure out what to do [and] what decisions to make,” says de Berker. “I suspect stress—both the arousal component and the unpleasantness of it—help us deal with uncertain situations possibly by making us more alert, and also incentivizes us to avoid them.”

While the current study didn’t look at this specifically, de Berker suggests practices like mediation could help mediate the stressful reaction to uncertainty. “I suspect that some meditative or religious practices which extoll the virtue of acknowledging only the present tense, or accepting our fate, might help reduce stress by attenuating our sensitivity to uncertainty,” he says. “Since uncertainty is about what’s going to happen in the future, if you’re completely absorbed in the present, then it seems likely that uncertainty will impact your stress less.”

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