Our brains like a predictable environment 

How do you grow and thrive in an unpredictable, uncertain environment? This excerpt fromStress-Proof Your Life illustrates why training your brain to make the unpredictable seem predictable is the key:

Uncertainty is perceived as unsafe and potentially painful. Whether the situation is predictably positive or predictably negative, your brain prefers something familiar to something unfamiliar. One study determined that people were less stressed by knowing they would receive a small electrical shock than they were by knowing they had an unpredictable chance of being shocked. 

Most of us have a relatively small chance of being electrically shocked, but we certainly can encounter shocking situations. For example, if at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday you are called unexpectedly into your boss’s office, one of three outcomes is likely: 

  • You’ve been doing a great job, things are great, and there is no way you are getting fired. 
  • You know you are getting fired.
  • You are not sure if you are getting fired. 

The first and second outcomes are less stressful than the third. The first is predictably positive, so it’s not stressful. The second is predictably negative and you can prepare yourself, much like you might grit your teeth if you knew you were about to receive an electrical shock. The third, however, is unpredictable. Unpredictability fires up your brain to get prepared for anything. Your system releases cortisol and other chemicals, which can leave you feeling on high alert. 

Once the meeting with your boss is over, your brain calms down. However, what happens if the uncertainty isn’t momentary? 

Chronic stress caused by uncertainty blocks critical thought . 

Our hardwired reaction to feeling unsafe is to protect ourselves and avoid pain. One of the most disastrous effects of chronic high stress is that it blocks critical and creative thought. In other words, the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking is busy dealing with the perceived risk of an unpredictable situation. Our brains don’t multitask; they focus on only one thing at a time and then have to switch to the next task. This task-switching not only impedes productivity, but it also creates a paralyzing loop of anxiety when the uncertainty isn’t momentary but rather a constant state. The electric shock study also concluded that “people who report higher levels of life stress behave as if they believe that the environment is more uncertain, indicating that chronic stress levels may be affected by prior exposure to environments of high uncertainty.” 

If we work and think best when we feel secure, how do we counteract the stress caused by long periods of uncertainty? 

One of the reasons why news of school shootings, natural disasters, or political discord increases stress is that the information our brains are processing limits our feeling of security. We convince ourselves on a daily basis that potentially dangerous activities are safe so that we can go about our day. If we really thought about the risks of driving on the highway or even crossing a busy street, we would stay in bed and pull the covers over our heads. 

You can’t just grit your teeth through unrelenting uncertainty. This kind of stress inhibits our ability to succeed and requires a sophisticated set of strategies to move forward with confidence. Remember, our brains like a predictable environment. 

We can train our brains to see uncertainty as predictable . 

“Training allows you to respond to a crisis with confidence. When you know what to do, you can respond intentionally rather than react instinctually. During a crisis, your brain wants to react instinctually, and often that instinctive response may not be helpful and can even be potentially harmful,” explains organizational safety culture expert Lisa Haen. Emergency action professionals such as firefighters, utility workers, and paramedics have to train to be able to work in uncertain, unpredictable situations. Training is essential to reduce risk. “Preparedness in the face of crisis is the key differentiator between body recovery and rescue.” In other words, taking proactive measures to prepare for the worst-case scenario makes the situation less likely to result in a catastrophe. Lisa’s work with construction, electric utility, and municipal organizations demonstrates that reacting strategically in an emergency situation is a learned behavior that protects us from our natural instinct to react rather than safely respond in an emergency. 

“It’s all a matter of identifying the hazard, mitigating the hazard, and then training to build that hardwired response so that they’re not reacting out of instinct. Engaging in these steps, high-risk workers are able to better prevent a potentially catastrophic event.” 

For example, our family vacations usually involve sailing our 39-foot sailboat across Lake Michigan from the Wisconsin side to the Michigan shore. Traveling 75 to 100 miles in a day over water in a boat that goes about 7 miles per hour may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but we love it. The water of this Great Lake hovers in the 50-degree range, which means that falling into the water becomes a life-threatening incident very quickly as hypothermia sets in. As we sail across the lake, we are many miles and hours away from getting help in an emergency. By the time we reach the middle, it would take four or five hours for the Coast Guard to get to us. 

People ask if sailing across the lake is dangerous. The answer is yes, there is an inherent danger, but we do our best to limit it. The lake is called an inland sea because it is unpredictable, and conditions can change quickly. Waves can reach a height of 12 feet. We keep a close eye on the weather and sea conditions. We always wear life jackets, and when the girls were little, they were tethered to the boat. Our biggest fear, what is most unpredictable, is that someone will fall overboard. In the cold water, falling in can be a life-threatening event if we can’t get to the person and get them back on board within about ten minutes. 

So, how do we manufacture security so that we feel confident enough to sail across the lake? 

My husband and I spend quite a bit of time thinking through how to rescue the person overboard and get them back on the boat. We’ve invested in equipment to allow us to be successful, including alarm systems in our life jackets that will alert us if one of us goes overboard and send a signal back to the boat with the location. We also have a block and tackle system to hoist someone out of the water and up six feet to get them back aboard. Crew overboard drills with our family and our racing crew are essential so that we can react quickly and use the equipment properly. 

We continue to think about what could happen and what we would do to address that issue. This “what if” process reduces our stress because we feel prepared. We’ve trained our brains to react as if someone falling overboard is predictable. 

None of this equipment or practice will prevent someone from falling overboard. It does, however, increase our ability to deal with the situation and prevent it from becoming a life-threatening event. This manufactured security allows us to move forward confidently. 

While you may never cross a Great Lake on a sailboat, we all face uncertainty. The process of thinking through the steps to manufacture security is the key to responding with confidence to uncertainty rather than triggering a sometimes paralyzing stress reaction. 

Find an exercise to create security in the face of uncertainty and unpredictability in the Combatting Uncertainty sections of Stress-Proof Your Life.


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