People crave certainty. Knowing what is coming next frees our brain to perform. It is easy to drive and talk to your passenger at the same time until the car in front of you slams on its brakes. We instantly respond to the threat. Our brains will focus on that uncertainty until it is resolved. Then we can go back to our normal functioning. Those brake lights have been facing us for several weeks, even months. Our uncertain world has no defined outcome.
This level of stress over time becomes distress. Stress shows itself differently among different people. And it can appear across four categories: physical, mental, emotional and behavioral. Headaches, muscle tightness and fatigue lead to the inability to focus and make decisions. The mental dysfunction, resulting mistakes and missed deadlines layer on the stress. Emotional reactions may be hard to see at work in a “certain” world. Today, we are seeing more irritability and impatience. Unhealthy behaviors responding to emotions include compulsive eating and drinking and sadly, violence.
Uncertainty is a threat. New situations increase adrenalin and dopamine just enough to call people to action. A mild threat response is useful. Neuroscience has investigated threats and threat response by looking at human brains in different situations using magnet resonance imaging. There are three levels of threat response. Level 1 threat or “pre-encounter” is a threat in your broader environment. For instance, you learn of a tragic pile up on a highway in your state. Level 2 threats are closer. You are in your car stopped in a traffic jam watching first responders rush by on the shoulders of the highway. This creates a fight or flight response that can impact your ability to think logically. Level 3 threat is when the danger is upon you. Your body is focused on fight or flight and it is difficult to think beyond avoiding hitting those brake lights facing you.
In the “old normal” we seldom rose above Level 1. The threat passed and we went back to driving the car and talking with our passenger. A recent study by the NeuroLeadership Institute of more than 200 leaders found more than 50% of front-line managers were consistently at Level 2 or higher. Level 2 or 3 help us fight or run but obstruct our ability to use good judgment and understand others.
It is helpful to name what you’re feeling and understand your feelings. Label your threat as 1. Manageable; 2. Strong; or 3. Overwhelming. If you are at Level 2 or 3 you may need to remove yourself from the environment. Take a walk, get a drink of water or practice breathing with belly breaths.
Identify what got your stress to spiral and if you can, reduce it or try to buffer it. Then add a positive experience. Nothing fights uncertainty like a schedule. Figure out what you can control and take advantage of your ability to be autonomous. Find some certainty in your life.
Our ability to survive depends on the ability to adapt. Celebrate what you can control today!