You've just recklessly jumped ship --  left the security of your job or refused the investor who isn't offering exactly what you want. You find yourself gripped by a cold, raw fear.  What are you actually afraid of?

Imagine you're driving along a clear highway when a thick fog suddenly descends out of nowhere. One moment you can see what's in front of you, the next you can't. You know the highway is clear ahead, but you're still gripped by panic. 

What's the focus of your fear? That you'll collide with something you know isn't there?

What you're actually afraid of is the fog itself -- the fog that has clouded the certainty of your view.

What are you really afraid of?

In a recent study, a group of researchers from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London set out to test exactly what pathological anxiety makes us more afraid of - the specific act of failing or simply not knowing what lies ahead.

They compared the performance of a group of individuals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder with a matched group of control volunteers on a gambling task.

The task included choosing between two decisions that both resulted in a win (but one was more uncertain than the other) and choosing between a win and a loss. 

If you're simply afraid of not knowing what lies ahead, you will be tempted by a "safe" gambling decision even if both decision outcomes lead to a win, while if you're specifically afraid of making a loss, you won't be as tempted to choose the less uncertain option if there's no risk of a loss either way.

The study found that fear of making a loss and fear of uncertainty were two separate things. Fearing one did not mean fearing the other. Having clinical anxiety did not make the volunteers more afraid of failing. It made them more afraid of not knowing.  

The fear of not knowing is more stressful than pain. 

While anxiety may enhance your fear of uncertainty, facing uncertainty can it turn, make you feel anxious.

In a 2016 study from University College, London, a group of healthy volunteers had to estimate the likelihood of receiving an electric shock to the back of the hand while researchers measured their stress response.

Their stress response didn't increase with the certainty of being given an electrical shock -- it increased with its uncertainty. Knowing they will definitely receive a painful electric shock felt less stressful to the volunteers than knowing they might receive it.

In an uncertain situation, anxiety and fear of uncertainty become a vicious circle, with one promoting the other. By minimizing uncertainty, you'll break the vicious circle.

Taking action. 

If you're aware that anxiety enhances your fear of uncertainty rather than your fear of losing, you can make wiser decisions under duress. Rather than drastically narrowing your options to eliminate all chances of loss, focus on minimizing uncertainty.

If you're blindsided by cold fear before a big decision, take these two steps:

  • List as many positive outcomes of your decision as you can and go through these in detail.

This prevents your brain from overestimating a negative outcome, by reminding it of all the potential positive outcomes it hasn't considered. Part of the reason why you're afraid of the future is your brain doesn't appreciate all the positive scenarios that are likely to play out.

  • Think of the worst case scenario and write out a detailed rescue plan for if it were to happen.

This is an anxiety-reducing  practice known as praemeditatio malorum, recommended by the stoic philosophers and used by Tim Ferriss. As Seneca said, "The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive."

When we fear uncertainty, our brains create a technicolor horror movie of what can go wrong. Imagining the worst case scenario and planning for it in detail shrinks this technicolor horror movie into a factual, black and white plan. It leaves no room for surprises, nor for your imagination to run wild. 

Both options define exactly what lies under the fog you see ahead, and reduce its uncertainty.

Published on: Mar 7, 2018