Why managing uncertainty is key to mental health

When talking about mental health, it is common to fall into the error of assuming that psychological disorders have to do fundamentally with the way in which we experience emotions.

Although there is no doubt that the emotional is a very important element to understand the human mind, it is not disconnected from the rest of psychological processes; among them, those that allow us to create predictions about what will happen based on our knowledge about how the world works. Our rational side and that of emotions are not totally separate, and this is clearly seen in how uncertainty affects us.

How do we manage the lack of information?

Although we have baptized our own species Homo sapiens, that does not mean that we are predestined to be wise people. Quite the contrary: we are born knowing practically nothing, and if we do nothing to remedy it, we remain in that state of total ignorance.

It is through learning (deliberate or not conscious) that we incorporate knowledge into our way of behaving and making decisions. However, no matter how quickly we learn, we never know everything; Little by little we can allow ourselves to answer the questions we ask ourselves, but almost always, these answers have many more questions associated with them.

That is why our way of thinking and interacting with the environment is always linked to a tension between what we know and what we do not know.

There are many investigations based on neuroimaging that show an interesting pattern: in situations of uncertainty, our brain tends to be more active. This fact corresponds to a theory that is gaining more and more force: that the brain has evolved as a set of organs that tries to minimize uncertainty by allowing us to behave according to the most accurate predictions possible.

Not only are we incapable of knowing everything, but our way of thinking has evolved as a result of this constant lack of information. We are made to deal with uncertainty, rather than to accumulate knowledge.

Uncertainty anxiety

Anxiety about lack of answers
Anxiety is another sign that our mind has the resources to deal with uncertainty. Being anxious may be unpleasant, but if the ability to feel that way is present in practically all people (if not all mammals) it is for something.

This mechanism predisposes us to pay more attention to our surroundings to detect as soon as possible the first signs that something is wrong or that if we do not hurry we will lose a valuable opportunity, and it allows us to react quickly by starting our muscles.

In other words, the psychological and biological mechanisms that lead us to be anxious exist because we innately try to predict what will happen, since we cannot fully know.

So. Is anxiety an emotional phenomenon, or one linked to how we manage information? Possibly, when talking about it, it makes no sense to clearly differentiate these two concepts.

However, not all ways of dealing with uncertainty and its emotional consequences are equally effective. Although anxiety itself is natural and does not have to be a problem, if certain circumstances occur it can lead us to have a very bad time, generating unnecessary suffering or even psychopathology (known as anxiety disorders ).

In other situations, anxiety does not generate very intense suffering, but instead of orienting ourselves towards solving a problem, it blocks us , making it difficult for us to stop thinking about something that obsesses us and make a decision about what we should do. to turn the page. In many cases, the fear of failure plays an important role in this.

The importance of short and long-term vision
If something is clear about the strategies that work when managing uncertainty, it is that it is important to follow an order, so that we do not have to face a huge set of questions every time we ask ourselves what to do to improve our situation .

That is to say: the key is to assume that not knowing many things at the same time is not a bad thing, and that instead of obsessing over what we do not know, we should have as a reference a sequence of actions that allow us to reduce uncertainty, focusing in one of them at a time.

It is not necessary to give a definitive answer to each of the questions , but one that is solid and consistent enough to allow us to focus our attention on other issues that also matter to us and that we should not “leave on the shelf” indefinitely.

That is why you have to combine a short-term vision with a long-term one. In the short term, we must focus our attention on what we know we can do now to improve our quality of life in some sense, but without giving in to what only gives us momentary relief (for example, distractions, eating without being really hungry, etc.) without allowing us to move towards our most ambitious goals .

Many of these ways of managing uncertainty can be seen as an investment, literally or metaphorically. Make an effort to study something that interests us, do a market study before launching our company, compare various health insurances before deciding on one, carefully observe the area in which we value buying a flat … these are experiences that in addition to being stimulating, they combine the acceptance that we cannot fully predict what will happen, on the one hand, and the idea that if we focus on certain issues that are important to us, that same day we can feel better about our future, on the other.