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How to respond to uncertainty and fear

August 29, 2022

reading time: 6 Minuten

by Peter Firth, guest author

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Inflation, pandemics, wars – catastrophes are beyond our control. How we respond to them, however, is not. We have to learn to deal with uncertainty.

Earlier this year The World Health Organisation (WHO) was trying to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted mental health globally. Researchers found that cases of anxiety and depression increased by 25 per cent in the first year of the outbreak. The news that we felt out of sorts while adjusting to the first throes of a major public health emergency shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But this finding is important. It contributes to a deluge of research that makes a single, simple point: that we are more worried than before.

Doom scrolling
More and more people feel powerless in the face of bad news.

It wasn’t just Covid. We’ve been on this trajectory of increased anxiety for a while now. Many attributed the rise of ‘burnout’ in the last decade (the WHO officially defined this as a term in 2019) to a work culture obsessed with productivity and constant digital work. Meanwhile major political, environmental and humanitarian crises have ushered in a penchant for ‘doomscrolling’, where we are addicted to apocalyptic news events consumed in real time.

In 2022, it is obvious to most that the tide of worrying, world-shaping events is more likely to rise than recede. Individually, we can’t halt the war in Ukraine, fix inflation or decrease the spiralling cost of living. But we can, with a few handy coping mechanisms, learn to manage our fears better.

Crucial for success: Embracing uncertainty

The reasons for anxiety are complex. But by unpicking them, some are discovering the secret to a happier, less fearful life. Sam Conniff, a British author who writes about entrepreneurship believes there is a common theme to our woes: uncertainty. “We are not made for the world that we have created,” he says. “When people talk about anxiety, lack of confidence at work, poor relationships with partners, the semi-present, semi-permanent sense of uncertainty is what links them all.”

Sam Conniff
Don't give up hope: "Uncertainty Expert" Sam Conniff sees uncertainty as an opportunity.

Conniff believes that our ability to manage uncertainty is pivotal to personal and societal success, citing psychological research into ambiguity tolerance in 1980. This field of study shows that those who are bothered by unknowns are more susceptible to propaganda, populist politics and conspiracy theories. Confounded by grey areas, people with poor tolerance to uncertainty are more likely to take refuge in one (usually extreme) end of a binary argument.

If you’re reading this and thinking – “Am I the problem?”, fear not. For those worried about their aversion to uncertainty, there is a solution: The Uncertainty Experts, a documentary concept that draws on the experiences of people who have faced extremely trying scenarios and – through adept managing of uncertainty – have come out on top. The live documentary is backed by research from University College London, and is designed to increase participants tolerance to uncertainty. The first programme of episodes went well, and Conniff, who co-founded and hosts the show, is currently in talks with Netflix.

Fear fightback
The dangerous world out there: Because we are unable to change the world around us, many report feelings of futility and boredom. © GettyImages/Justin Paget

If uncertainty is the root cause of our mental health travails, it might also be the key to unlocking our full potential as a species. Getting better at thinking past unknowns enables us to collaborate, empathise and create better, says Conniff: “In heightened states of arousal that uncertainty causes, our mental capacity increases and neuroplasticity occurs,” he says. “if we can manage our emotions and regulate that fear response, uncertainty is in fact an incredible unlock for creativity, information gathering, resourcefulness, innovation, problem solving. Weirdly, the problems that we are facing could well be the gateway to increasing our capacity.”

Resilience: Grow or break after disasters

Where heightened states of panic and anxiety start, feelings of depression and powerlessness often follow. Faced with our own limitations to change the world around us, many of are reporting feelings of meaninglessness and ennui. Similarly to developing a tolerance to uncertainty, there are emerging methods of working past feelings of listlessness.

Olivia Remes
Unexpected advice: Dr. Olivia Remes recommends that people who struggle with fear and insecurity in their lives consciously do things poorly. © AP Photo/Matthias Schrader

Dr. Olivia Remes is a researcher at the University of Cambridge whose studies centre on anxiety, depression, wellbeing and resilience. Her book The Instant Mood Fix: Emergency Remedies to Beat Anxiety, Panic or Stress, shows that often the means of feeling better are more immediate than we might imagine. Remes works with individuals as a life coach, helping them rediscover their pep. “For people who are stuck, feeling powerlessness and inertia, the antidote is simple,” she says. “You start by discounting the stuff that you can’t control, then increasing your level of control over the things you can.”

Some of Remes thinking is based on a study she worked on with her institute at the university. The research examined the lives of 20,000 people living in the UK, half of whom were women. Remes and her team found that living in disadvantaged circumstances was linked to anxiety in women. Probing further, researchers discovered that those who had certain coping mechanisms were more immune to anxiety even if they were living in tough conditions.

Depression anxiety
A traumatic experience does not necessarily have to be followed by depression and anxiety. © AP Photo/Fabio Ferrari, Lapresse

“We looked at other studies and saw a similar pattern,” she says. “People exposed to adversity, who had been through wars or natural disasters, a proportion had high levels of poor mental health, such as posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. Others were able to retain their mental health. The question became, what are some of these coping strategies that can help us bounce back?”

Our ability to thrive then, isn’t about exposure to external events, but in how we respond to them. The good news is that, like Conniff, Remes believes that everyone can get better at managing their reactions. She advises that people who feel stuck or unable to act – whether in their careers, or life generally – should embrace failure in a process she calls ‘do it badly’.

“Doing things badly reduces anxiety around perfectionism,” says Dr. Remes. “The paralysis around doing things well goes down and we are able to overcome inertia. ‘Do it badly’ helps to turn the anxiety regarding a particular action to excitement.” 

Valuable for investors: Fear can be productive

This technique bodes well for those working in the turbulent (and often scary) sphere investment. Fear is a powerful motivating impulse that has been honed over thousands of years to keep us alive, but recognising different types of it is key to unlocking our potential as a species. Ron Carson, founder of wealth advisory firm Carson Group talks about productive and unproductive fear. Productive fear is about recognising real risks and mitigating them, while unproductive fear is the sort that prevents you from taking on the risks that improve your life or increase your wealth. Writing in Forbes, he emphasises the importance of recognising both kinds when thinking through strategy and managing investment portfolios.

Economic crises
Economic, social and humanitarian crises will always be with us. Time to learn how to deal with them mentally. © Keystone/AFP/Oli Scarff

“Even short-term market movements are enough to create doubt among some investors, causing them to second guess their strategies,” he says. “That lack of confidence can lead to emotions taking over, resulting in poor or reactive decisions that are not aligned with an investor’s goals.”

It's clear that the external factors contributing to the current fear, anxiety and depression epidemic aren’t going anywhere. In fact, a quick glance at the headlines attests to a raft of deepening crises and a world that is scarier than before. If the change won’t happen around us, perhaps it must happen within us instead.

How to respond to uncertainty and fear: Key take-outs

1. Increase uncertainty tolerance. Getting better at coping in times of uncertainty won’t just make you happier, it will help you make better decisions, too. 

2. Avoid perfectionism. Sometimes we feel hamstrung while pursuing success or the ideal outcome. Leveraging mistakes – and learning from them – is an effective way to overcome fear.

3. Distinguish between productive and unproductive fear. Both are valuable, but damaging in the wrong situation.

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