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Here’s Your Brain’s New User Manual For Uncertain Times

When we don’t know what’s going to happen, we tell ourselves stories about what might happen. And they often make us feel worse, not better.

Here’s Your Brain’s New User Manual For Uncertain Times
[Photo: NYC Municipal Archives via Wikimedia Commons]

Even if you’ve kept only one eye on the headlines lately and the other tightly clenched, you’re probably aware that these are, shall we say, some pretty uncertain times. But what you may not be aware of is that human beings, thanks to much earlier times, far back in our evolutionary history, aren’t built to deal with uncertainty all that well for all that long.

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Picture yourself in a semi-wooded wilderness. There are predators about–or maybe there are and maybe there aren’t. It’s really the not-knowing that has you on edge. Anytime something unknown encroaches on our environment, we worry it might kill us, just as our ancestors did. That’s true not just of physical creatures we’ve never encountered–even if they turn out to be harmless–but of ideas and concepts that seem potentially dangerous, too.

This anxiety puts us in a heightened state of stress. Pumped with more adrenaline and cortisol, our entire brains essentially get hijacked by a single region of it, the amygdala. Evolutionarily, this was useful. We actually evolved to live in these high-stress states, at least for short bursts of time: There’s a lion–run!

But today, getting back to our mental baselines isn’t as easy as determining whether there’s a lion or just a titmouse crouching behind that shrub. In our current political environment, for instance, uncertainty about what’s happening around us and what’s coming next can last for weeks or months on end. It exhausts our nervous systems, leaves us wiped out, jittery, craving an end.

Fatigued, our brains try and create certainty in one of three ways:

  1. We make premature decisions. We decide on something, often too soon, just to lock it in and make ourselves feel better.
  2. We freeze and make no decisions at all. We get overwhelmed and can’t take any action, and feel victimized by circumstances.
  3. We fill in the gaps of what we don’t know with groundless assumptions and label them facts. We create unfounded stories in our heads that either lead us astray or cause us to stress out even more. It’s either, “Everything is going to end horribly!” or, “It’s all going to be fine!”

Bad news: All three of these strategies fail. Each one still leaves us feeling heavily stressed. So while you can’t impose order on the world, in all its chaotic, anxiety-inducing complexity, you can impose more order on your poor, exhausted brain. Here are a few ways to steady yourself in times of uncertainty, so you can feel more centered and, hopefully, act with a little more clarity.

Create “Certainty Buckets”

Imagine your mind is a scale: There’s a bucket on one end labeled “Things I Know,” and a bucket on the other end labeled “Things I Don’t Know.” If you want to be able to handle a heaver load on the “Things I Don’t Know” side, you need to dump in some more content on the opposing end–the things you know. For your brain to reach something close to equilibrium, the two sides need to be roughly even.

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How? Return to old favorites. Reread a favorite book or two (there’s got to be one you haven’t touched since college) or rewatch a movie or TV series you love.

Plan out your meals for the whole day or the whole week. You can even go nuclear and follow the renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp’s regimented routine: She wakes up at the same time, eats the same breakfast, does the same workout–all to give her the space to sit in the uncertainty of choreography.

But even adding just a little extra routine can help you find your own centeredness. The more things in your life that you know to be certain, the more cognitive and emotional stamina you’ll have to handle the things that you can’t pin down.

Think Like A Poker Player

In a recent interview for our book, poker champion Annie Duke told us that the key to making good decisions in the uncertain environment of a poker game is to think in probabilities. Duke accepts that even after mitigating risk as best she can, she’ll still only be right a certain percentage of the time. “When you’re a poker player,” she says, “you’re always thinking probabilistically.”

When Duke bought her boyfriend a coat, she put the odds at his liking it at 50-50. She said this helped her be prepared for him to not like it and for that to not be a big deal.

Acknowledge And Embrace It

Easier said than done, right? Maybe not as much as you think. Owning your uncertainty starts simply by acknowledging how it’s making you feel; those corollary emotions of fear and heightened stress are your tell-tale signs. You just need to consciously admit that you’re experiencing them–which, since it’s a such a negative experience, our instinct is often to deny and thus try to escape (it never works).

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So instead, put it in a sentence and add something at the end that counterbalances the negative feelings you’re acknowledging: Say out loud, “I am feeling anxious, and my life is very blessed.” “I am overwhelmed, and that’s okay.” Cognitive behavioral therapists use methods like these all the time to help people reframe and accept emotions that people otherwise find overwhelming. In many cases, these exercises actually help decrease those emotions.

Buy A Movie Ticket

Evolution happened to imbue our brains with another strong tendency as well: A deep susceptibility to narrative. So pull up your local movie showtimes and look for the latest mystery or thriller–then grab a ticket.

You can pick up a book, too, just as long as you sit down with it for a while. When you get to the point when the mystery is about to be revealed, stop. (If you’re at the movie theater, now’s your chance to take a bathroom break or grab a soda.) Sit with whatever you’re feeling for a moment. Notice how you want to know. Notice how your body feels, how your mind races. Notice if you are worried.

Now, go back to the story and see how it ends (or rush back to your seat so you don’t miss the final plot twist and have to Google a spoiler-ridden recap on somebody’s blog later). Then notice that none of your reactions had any effect on the eventual outcome. What happened, happened. You can also go through the story and weigh the probabilities of different outcomes as you make your way through.

Lastly, remember that we often tell ourselves stories, and they often make us feel worse, not better. We lay out a future of terrible things and then live in that future, even though none of the anticipated things have happened before and may never happen in actuality–it’s a natural reaction. That doesn’t mean they won’t, of course. Sometimes, there really is a lion behind that shrub. Other times, it’s just our lurking, disembodied worry that there might be.

So rather than spin stories about impending catastrophes, try to live more with what’s actually happening, and less with what might. That’s hard enough.

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Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane are the coauthors of The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking.