Why uncertainty creates the worst kind of stress

davanti counselling uncertainty

Not knowing what will happen is more stressful than inevitable pain. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/dream designs)

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

So Alfred Hitchcock famously said, in relation to the suspense in his movies. And yet this quote has tremendous resonance for those of us living with the terror of uncertainty. Not knowing what will happen, or if something will happen, is far worse than knowing pain is on its way and having to deal with it. This is backed by research from University College London (UCL) proving that “uncertainty can cause more stress than inevitable pain”.

The researchers asked 45 participants to play a computer game that involved turning over rocks that might or might not have snakes underneath them. The volunteers received a mild electric shock on the hand every time there was a snake. The rocks changed each time, to increase levels of uncertainty. The study measured how stressed participants would be from getting shocks, and also the stress caused by the uncertainty around when or if they would get the shocks. The conclusion was that uncertainty causes more stress than knowing what’s going to happen to you.

Study lead author Archy de Berker, from UCL’s Institute of Neurology, says: “Our experiment allows us to draw conclusions about the effect of uncertainty on stress. It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t.”

Co-author Dr Robb Rutledge adds: “The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious. The same is likely to apply in many familiar situations, whether it’s waiting for medical results or information on train delays.”

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