Uncertainty about the future makes us less capable of coping with negative events when they happen. It also disables us from taking effective and efficient steps to avoid them. This negative reaction is actually a maladaptation of the intrinsic ability of the human brain to predict the future, based on knowledge and past experience.
This ability helps humans to deal with possible negative outcomes or to avoid them, and to maximize the chances of a positive outcome. A critical level of certainty seems to be required in order to achieve this kind of processing. Below this level, individuals become uncertain as to whether a desired event will happen, and to the setting of that event in time and in life situations.
This uncertainty breeds indecisiveness and poor ability to prepare for it, as well as inability to tolerate the possibility that it will not happen. This in turn leads to anxiety and stress.
Research has shown that anxiety-related stress is separate from fear. When faced with an adverse situation, or with the clear and impending threat of such a situation, fear is the usual response. This acts out as the flight or fight scenarios.
However, when the situation dreaded is in the far and uncertain future, the observed result is anxiety, which is seen as a tendency to constantly assess the risk level. Intolerance of uncertainty is seen in some individuals who tend to be over-anxious.
Fear is usually short-lived and occurs in response to a definite threat. On the other hand, anxiety produces a sustained stressful response to an uncertain and unpredictable threat. Thus, the ability to predict a threat to some degree causes a clear reduction in the level of negative stress associated with the dreaded situation.
It has been observed in patients with cancer that those with intolerance to uncertainty develop behavior or thought patterns which help them avoid the deeply negative fears of the possibility they dread, or prepare intensively for it. In the process, they slip deeper into mental distress.
Some of the ways in which uncertainty produces stress and anxiety are:
The primary actions of uncertainty in creating stress and anxiety comprise:
These attitudes and actions need to be explored and corrected in order to enable uncertainty to be tolerated and coped with successfully.