6 Simple Tips For When Uncertainty is Causing You Too Much Stress
2020 has been a very strange year full of uncertainty and stress. We’ve had a global pandemic, civil rights protests across the globe, and even murder hornets. We have to worry about climate change and a possible global recession, about the outcomes of elections to find out who will lead countries around the world as presidents and members of parliament as we navigate these new global crises.
With all of this uncertainty, it isn’t at all surprising that stress is at an all-time high.
So, What Exactly Is Stress, Anyway?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, stress is “the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response.” It is actually normal, and in fact, healthy to experience some amount of stress. As we navigate our daily lives, we are constantly reacting to changes—whether it is because of something simple like a detour on the way to work or something more substantial like getting a phone call telling you your wife has gone into labor earlier than expected. The stress reaction is our body’s way of telling us, ‘hey, something new has happened that requires your attention.’
When we enter into this stress mode, our body releases the hormones Cortisol and Adrenaline, which increases our heart rate, pushes our lungs to pump more oxygen into the bloodstream, and diverts resources from other bodily functions such as repairing tissues, digesting food, or other activities that can be put on hold until the stressful event is over.
Why Do We Stress Over Uncertainty?
When we are faced with adversity or danger, our bodies typically respond in one of two ways. If the adverse situation is predictable, imminent, and clearly defined, our bodies tend to respond through an acute stress reaction. This acute reaction is the body’s way of confronting immediate danger. This reaction is typically short-lived and subsides as soon as the threat is gone.
However, when faced with an unpredictable or uncertain danger or adverse situation, the body tends to respond through an anxiety stress reaction. In this state, we are continually assessing the threat level and maintaining an always-on threat detection posture. This response is well suited for early humans who had to stay aware of their surroundings and always be on the lookout for predators or other dangers. But in the modern world where we have no refuge from the economic uncertainty, political instability, or the risks of climate change and global pandemics, this stress response can quickly become overwhelming and lead to a number of unwanted and undesirable outcomes.
Is Uncertainty More Stressful Than a Known Bad Outcome?
Though it may seem counterintuitive, facing an uncertain future outcome is actually more stressful than knowing that something terrible is going to happen. When we know that something bad is going to happen, we are able to plan and prepare for the outcome, and even though we may not be able to avoid the unpleasant event, we have some level of control over the situation.
When the future is uncertain, on the other hand, we are not able to plan or prepare for the outcome, and we aren’t able to rely on past experience to help us decide what actions to take.
This inability to plan, predict, or prepare for the future causes us to feel more stress and anxiety than if we had known the lousy outcome from the beginning.
5 Effects of Too Much Stress
Though stress can be a healthy reaction to certain situations, when our bodies are in non-stop, hyper-alert state due to constant stress, there can be some serious side effects.
Gray hair and hair loss
Though scientists still have not discovered the exact reason why stress can lead to gray hair, some studies have shown that it is possibly due to the sympathetic nervous system and the fight-or-flight response releasing hormones which cause the cells near the hair follicle to stop producing pigment.
High levels of stress can impact the reproductive health of both men and women. In women, stress can affect the menstruation cycle leading to irregular timing and reduced ovulation. In men, the release of hormones during the stress response may cause the body to produce fewer sperm, and the sperm that are produced are not able to move as effectively.
Getting sick more easily
Since the stress response results in ‘non-essential’ systems slowing down when we are feeling stressed, our immune system is not working at full capacity. Our decreased defenses make us much more susceptible to diseases and other ailments.
Constipation, bloating, or needing to use the bathroom more
The stress response affects every part of the body, including the gut. During fight-or-flight, the body often tries to shut down unnecessary systems such as the digestive tract. This can lead to issues such as constipation, bloating, or even diarrhea. On top of this, the body has a tendency to discharge waste so that we can move more quickly, which causes us to need to go to the bathroom more when we are stressed.
The stress hormone Cortisol can cause additional issues in the digestive tract, which may allow bacteria and toxins to avoid the normal filters and pass into the bloodstream. Though scientists are still trying to understand this phenomenon fully, it is believed that these toxins are causing an immune response in the skin, which can lead to rashes or other skin conditions.
6 Ways to Manage the Stress Caused By Uncertainty
But living through uncertain times doesn’t mean we are destined to be overwhelmed by stress all the time. There are plenty of things we can do to manage the uncertainty, plan for the future, and overcome stress:
Identify the cause of the stress
One of the most critical steps in managing stress is to understand what is causing it in the first place. Until we can identify the source of the stress response, we can never hope to fix the issue and return to a stress-free state.
Remember that we don’t have to solve the whole problem at once
If we can break down broader issues into smaller, more manageable components, it can be easier to handle the uncertainty. We deal with uncertain situations every day, but since these daily uncertainties are typically smaller and easier to handle, they don’t make us feel as much anxiety and stress. For example, instead of looking at global climate change as a whole, if we focus on things such as recycling the garbage at our own home, purchasing sustainable products, or planting trees in our local parks, we are able to feel more in control and reduce overall stress.
Mindfulness is excellent for managing stress
This simple technique involves focusing on the current time and place and trying to be mindful of what is happening in the moment—as opposed to focusing on the uncertain future. By focusing on the now, we are able to spend more energy thinking about things we can control and less time feeling anxious about what we can’t.
It may seem unconnected, but maintaining a healthy diet can be a powerful way to reduce stress. Giving your body and brain proper fuel to function at peak performance allows us to confront the stressful situations we face each day more efficiently and effectively
Just like maintaining a healthy diet can help us deal with stress more effectively, so too can maintaining an adequate physical exercise routine. Even walking as little as 15-20 minutes a few times a week can make a big difference.
Get enough (good) sleep
One of the easiest ways to get overwhelmed by the stress we face each day is not to get enough sleep. Sleep helps us to ‘reset’ our brains and take on the next day fresh and full of energy. Without enough sleep, it can be much more challenging to deal with stress, and we may begin to feel overwhelmed.
No matter how hard we try to create structure and predictability, there is always going to be uncertainty in our lives. The important thing is that we can learn to live more stress-free lives by understanding the processes that cause us to feel anxiety, how to manage the stress that does arise, and how to become more resilient to the stress that we will inevitably experience from time to time.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in psychology, Scott went on to work as a teacher and educational counselor while working towards his master’s degree. He has spent several years working with children and adults and has personal experience with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Dyslexia, and Depression.