June 27, 2023
Imagine yourself sitting down in a plastic raft atop a towering waterslide wrapped up in a tunnel.
You can’t see more than a few feet down the slide before it descends into darkness. All you hear from the people who have gotten on the slide before you are piercing shrieks. You have no idea what’s waiting for you down that tunnel, and that terrifies you. Your heart beats faster, your palms sweat, and stomach rumbles and threatens to riot.
Against your better judgment, you head down the dark tunnel and all of its uncertainty and SPLASH! Fifteen seconds later you’re at the bottom of the pool: Soaking wet, out of breath, and grinning from ear to ear with exuberance.
Instead of fear, you found joy in embracing uncertainty. What your fearful brain envisioned as shrieks of horror were actually screams of delight at the fun brought on by the slide’s twists and turns.
Welcome to life. Where you inevitably will be met with uncertainty more than a few times. While many of us have the natural instinct to fear the unknown in life, it actually makes no rational sense to do so. New things that come into our life have no preset definition as being good or bad for us. Change is a part of life and something to be embraced.
Change is Natural
We tend to think of change as this big, imposing thing that is meant to be feared. Change means we’re moving to a new city. Change means we’re breaking up with a significant other. Change means we’re having to look for a new job. Change means someone has passed.
Yes, those are all life events that fall under the category of change. But change is also happening inside of our bodies and all around us every second of every day. Change happens in our cells, on our skin, in our muscles again and again. It’s constant. Just like the weather changes every day, the price of gas, the Earth’s movement around the sun, and everything else that we see with our eyes and more things that we don’t. Change is the most natural force in our world, and has been since our world began.
Why Do We Fear Change and Uncertainty?
Fearing things we don’t know comes from a couple of sources: Our biology yes, but also the way we were raised. Have you ever seen an animal react to an unfamiliar noise? Some, like dogs, will cock their head in a rather comical manner as their brains attempt to categorize what it was. Others, like squirrels or rabbits, will freeze in place, remaining absolutely still, because an unfamiliar sound might mean a predator, and predators are the thing that they absolutely want no part of.
Encountering some unknown quantity or change to their environment triggers the fight-or-flight response in most animals. Their bodies break their next decision to an uncertain quality down into two possible responses: Fight tooth and nail or run for the hills. Humans have that same characteristic response. It’s how our ancient ancestors decided to band together as a village to scare off a dire wolf rather than flee in every possible direction.
But we have more highly evolved brains and our lives have more potential responses in them than run or hide. We have curiosity and excitement and intrigue, but also dread and embarrassment and shame.
Having highly evolved brains also means we are capable of learning behaviors, for better and for worse. Therefore if we are taught as children to be scared of uncertainty, we are very likely to carry that belief into our adult years.
It’s simple science. Just like we grow up thinking that one sports team is superior to all others or one type of food is the greatest on Earth, the beliefs we form as children tend to be ingrained in us for years, if not decades.
That has both positives and negatives. It’s fantastic when our parents are able to instill virtues like kindness and humility. But not so much when they pass on their prejudices and their fears.
How to Embrace Uncertainty
Being OK with change or not knowing what is coming next is not as simple as flipping a light switch on and off. It takes time and focus and the ability to be kind to oneself in order to make progress. These practices can get you going towards being able to face uncertainty without folding into fear.
Take comfort in the things you can control
An event like the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and beyond had a lot of people suffering from staggering fear of what would happen next around the world. When you are suffering a lot of stress from change, focus on the things that are under your control. For instance, you might be looking for a new job, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t eat healthy and get daily exercise. No one can dictate what goes in your mouth but you. No one can force you to not exercise 24 hours a day. You are never powerless! Take solace and comfort in the things that belong solely to you.
Deal with your emotions
When a family member is sick, we tend to put on a brave face around them, around our friends, and around our coworkers. That’s all well and good, but when we’re alone or when we feel the need, we have to be able to let our emotions out that are welling up because of the imminent uncertainty in our lives. Unchecked emotions are a danger to our mental and physical health regardless of the circumstances. The more you try to bottle it up, the more likely your eventual outburst of emotions is to damage you.
Challenge your need for certainty
A daughter comes to her father in tears, saying that is scared of starting a new school where she doesn’t know anyone. The father redirects the thought by telling her that right now there are kids out there that she’s never met who are going to be so excited to meet her and be her friend in the year to come. Breaking through your struggles with uncertainty won’t come without work and commitment. Instead of focusing on the worst thing that could happen, realize there are also virtually limitless possibilities of good things that could happen when change occurs. Chief among them are your personal opportunities to grow, to evolve, to take on new challenges, to meet new people, and to learn more about yourself. Uncertainty is not a shadow to fear, but rather a gift to embrace.