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by Matthew Leitch, 13 February 2003
Is uncertainty one of the causes of stress? Obviously. What is not obvious is exactly why, and what we can do to reduce the stress we suffer by using this knowledge. Here's another puzzle. Imagine you have to make a phone call to someone at work who is much more important than you are. It's just a phone call, so why does your body prepare, physiologically, for a fist fight?
On this web page I offer explanations for these puzzles, and suggest thoughts to stop, or even prevent, stress responses.
Uncertainty is not just one of the causes of stress; it is a vital part of the mechanism of psychological stress. Managing it can make a big difference to your health and happiness.
First, let's review some of the basics of stress.
"Stress" in ordinary conversations refers to a rag bag of effects. One common factor is that they all require some kind of recovery by our bodies. The causes of stress can be divided into three main groups:
Chemical, biological, or thermal attack or deficiency: e.g. dehydration, nutritional gaps, infection, wounding, over-heating, being cold, smoking.
Doing work: e.g. digging a trench, memorising 100 words in a foreign language, proof reading for an hour.
Psychological stress: e.g. worrying about illness, awkward social situations, arguments.
When we experience more than one of these at the same time they are more damaging. If the sum total of our stressors is greater than our recovery capacity we begin to crumble.
Our capacity to recover is affected by such factors as:
The amount of sleep we get: During sleep our bodies are awash with growth hormone that accelerates physical recovery. There is also some slight evidence that sleep is needed to consolidate some kinds of learning.
The amount of physical exercise we get: Although exercise is doing work and so a cause of stress it also has the beneficial effect of clearing up unwanted stress hormones from our bodies. Stress hormones like adrenalin stay in circulation for many, many hours or even days once released, but exercise helps clear them up much faster.
The amount of really deep relaxation we achieve: Another way to boost recovery is to meditate, or do something similar that produces a very deep relaxation, accompanied by a collection of physiological recovery effects.
The puzzling type of stress is psychological stress, and it's also the most damaging and common in the developed world. Very rarely in our normal lives do we need to respond to challenges with an immediate, intense physical effort, and yet that is what our bodies gear up for, day after day. This reaction is often called the "fight or flight" response.
Let's go back to that phone call. Imagine the important person you have to call is someone you've met twice before, but only briefly. On one occasion what he said made no sense and he seemed to get cross very quickly. This person has a lot of power but there's no telling how he will react to what you have to say to him, or what he might do.
It's just a phone call, yet the collection of physiological changes most people experience in this psychologically stressful situation include increased heart rate and muscular tension, reduced digestion and salivation, reduced immune response, and a desire to urinate. All these things would make perfect sense for an animal under threat from a predator, say, and needing to make an intense physical effort to survive. Every resource is temporarily dedicated to fight or flight and other physical needs are put on hold - though not urination of course because that makes you lighter and better able to run fast.
But it's just a phone call.
The physiological effects of the fight or flight response have been heavily researched and all sorts of frightening links with disease have been found. There's even evidence that it causes damage to our memories, and also to a related brain mechanism responsible for controlling the stress response. In other words, constant stress eventually makes us less able to control our stress.
Stress also tends to be counter-productive in social encounters, leading us to react in ways that we regret later. Calm, confident people are generally better respected and liked.
One of the more effective ways to cut stress is to think different thoughts when something stressful happens. This is sometimes called "cognitive restructuring" or a "cognitive intervention". To do this we need to understand in more detail, in thinking terms, what happens when we encounter a stressor.
Stress is often talked about as if it were a response to actual or anticipated bad news. For example, we hear we have failed an exam, feel bad, and a stress response occurs. We learn we have to give a speech to 100 people, feel tense, and a stress response occurs.
In evolutionary terms this does not make much sense. The fight or flight response is a physiological preparation for action, so the aspect of stressful situations that triggers this response must be whatever it is that suggests an action is needed. For example, failing the exam means explaining it to friends and family, deciding whether to retake, and perhaps retaking the exam. It is a career blow and means that lots of things later in life will be just a bit harder. Giving a speech to 100 people means getting prepared, delivering the speech, dealing with the reactions to it, risking serious reputation damage from performing badly, and so on.
Thinking about situations that probably, or might, require some kind of effort is psychologically stressful. Receiving news that indicates an effort is needed is also stressful. For example, how would you feel if you received information that told you one or more of the following?: you've not done as well as you thought, others have done better, you are in a worse position than you thought, the likelihood of success in something is less than you thought, or you have just been offered a great opportunity but you have to act to take it. All of these would give most people a rush of stress.
Another piece of evidence showing that it's not bad news that makes us stressed is the fact that unexpected good news can cause a stress response too. Imagine you are watching TV to see if you have won the national lottery. The odds are millions to one against a worthwhile win but you tune in anyway, because you never know. As the numbers are selected you can hardly believe it. Number after number matches your selections. As the final number is revealed you realise you have won a lot of money. Millions. Most people would experience a powerful stress response in this situation. Pulse racing, sweating, physically geared up and tense, light headed perhaps. Your life has changed in ways you can only begin to imagine so some kind of response is needed.
Having established that stress is a response to the possibility that action is required, let's consider the thinking stages of stress.
The first stage is usually to identify that a piece of news (just received, or recalled) implies some kind of action could be required. The cues that suggest something might require a response include these:
The news is unexpected.
The news concerns someone or something that we already consider important.
The news is, or could be, bad in some way.
At this point the exact nature of that action has not been decided, but a fight or flight response kicks in immediately anyway.
Imagine you are walking in front of a building that houses some television studios and a glamorous looking woman with a clipboard approaches you and says "I've got a fantastic prize for you to win". Straight away your stress response kicks in, even though you have no idea what action might be required. You only begin to calm down as you learn that the prize is just a packet of a new brand of chewing gum and to "win" the prize all you have to do is give your name and address. No cameras appear. No Chris Tarrant. Just gum. Your body begins to wind down.
The fight or flight response at this early stage is a precaution that makes evolutionary sense. If this really is a fight or flight situation not a second should be wasted. That rustle in the undergrowth could be a sabre toothed lion, so just in case it turns out to be one the brain and body get ready to run.
In the developed world, for most people most of the time, the fight or flight response is responding to a false alarm. We hardly ever need to fight or flee, but after millions of years of evolution we seem programmed to gear up physiologically for the worst.
As our brain continues to process information it establishes more about the action required in response to the stressor. Sometimes, once a plan of action with no need for fight or flight has been identified and is convincing, we begin to feel calmer and the fight or flight response winds down. More often, we are unable to think through our response fully and remain hooked on risks of unexpectedly bad things happening.
For example, you may have prepared a speech for the 100 people but still be worried by the possibility of heckling or hostile questions, or the possibility of forgetting what you were going to say, and so on.
These unresolved risks are identified stressors without an identified response so the brain and body remain geared up for fight or flight as a precaution.
Through this process there are at least five ways that uncertainty helps to drive psychological stress.
The first way that uncertainty contributes to stress is that we normally identify the need for some kind of response (i.e. an effort of some kind) before deciding what that response should be. While there is uncertainty about the required response our brain prepares for all eventualities including the possibility that an immediate, intense, physical effort will be needed. The fight or flight response kicks off just in case.
The longer we are uncertain about the response the longer our bodies are on standby. The second way uncertainty drives stress is that an uncertain future usually makes it more difficult for us to decide what response to make. That increases the delay between identifying the need for action and deciding what the action is.
This is not always the case. Uncertainty tends to mean having to plan for more eventualities. However, sometimes it is the apparent inevitability of a bad situation that makes it so difficult to find a solution. In this case, it is certainty that prolongs the search for a response.
The third way uncertainty drives stress is that uncertainty about the future leaves open the possibility of some very extreme and unpleasant situations. At the beginning of our deliberations there are usually some nasty downside risks on the fringe of our consciousness. These are particularly important for stress because these extreme possibilities are also the ones most likely to need physical fight or flight.
The fourth way uncertainty drives stress is through a psychological mechanism sometimes called a misattribution. When we are uncertain we can be influenced by some dubious forms of evidence. One kind of evidence that affects our judgments is our own physiological state. Once a fight or flight response has started it produces feelings that tend to persuade us that we are indeed in a tough situation where a big effort is needed. (We attribute our feelings to the situation rather than realising they are precautionary.) Similarly, if other people seem to be up tight we take this as further evidence that we should be too.
Another problem is when our perceptions of the likelihood of alternative outcomes are inaccurate. The most obvious problem is when we over-estimate the chances of something bad happening. This tends to push up stress. Less obviously, understimating the odds of something bad happening tends to reduce stress, but only until the bad thing happens. Then, taken by surprise, our stress is increased.
By managing our uncertainty differently - thinking different thoughts in a different order - we can cut our psychological stress significantly.
Although it is hard to decide more quickly on your response to a situation or piece of news, it is usually easy to decide quickly if an immediate, intense, physical effort is going to be required. You can decide other aspects of your response later.
Run through the possible reasons for needing to make an effort and consider if the effort is mental or physical, now or later, intense or sustained? List reasons for each classification. Almost always you will find that immediate fight or flight is not a possibility.
(You may decide that a physical response is not needed, but feel that a rush of adrenaline would help you focus mentally. In fact the fight or flight response does improve mental functioning, but only in specific ways. Our attention tends to narrow but our senses are heightened. Certain aspects of memory improve, but creativity is inhibited. Most situations in modern life require superior planning and problem solving rather than the heightened alertness needed for fight or flight.)
If it is possible to conclude early on that the best response will involve calm thought and action then do so. This is the opposite to the fight or flight state.
This analysis may take a bit of time and require writing a list because the brain is complex and can think of many different reasons why a response might be needed. Each one needs to be examined and eliminated, if possible, as a reason for immediate fight or flight. (There are examples later in this document.)
In preparation for a situation that is likely to throw up stressful news or challenges it may help to anticipate them and consider in advance whether an immediate, intense, physical effort would be needed.
The next thing to do is to cut down the risk of a very bad outcome in whatever situation you are thinking about. In the case of a phone call to an important person, consider the true likelihood of a really bad reaction, and consider the most likely reaction. Think about the approach you can take to reduce or eliminate the risk of the worst reactions and get this clear in your head first.
This is your safety net. With a safety net in place you can go back to the question of whether an immediate, intense, physical response is needed.
It may be that initially you could not eliminate the possibility of having to fight someone in their office. However, after thinking through the situations that might lead to that and deciding how to avoid such an extreme escalation you can now eliminate the possibility of having to fight physically, and cut down the risk of various other things that would have triggered an awareness of effort being needed.
Do not slip into the trap of relying on unreliable evidence from your own bodily feelings and the behaviour of others. Recognise when you are uncertain and that your own physical feelings are not a reliable guide. Check the evidence and try to be objective and quantitively precise about the chances of alternative things happening.
Of course there are also other ways to reduce psychological stress. You can avoid or ignore stressors, learn to say "no", manage your time better, do less, think about something else, improve your problem solving skills generally, desensitize systematically, flood, look on the bright side and stop negative thinking cycles. You can also improve recovery through exercise and relaxation. Finally, there is medication.
All these methods are widely used and have their place. However, managing uncertainty to cut stress is something you can do quickly and easily, that does not limit your productivity (because you are still thinking about your problems, just in a different sequence), and that helps to cut off the stress response at source rather than just clearing up the chemical damage afterwards. Although generally improved problem solving is helpful, the sequence that best manages uncertainty will bring a reduction in stress more quickly.
Here are some examples of situations that most people would find excruciatingly stressful, with analyses of why and what thoughts might help switch off the stress response.
Read the first two or three then try writing your own analyses for the others. Most people find just reading these situations rather stressful so do not read them unless you are prepared to think through the calming thoughts as well. If you want to do that later, just skip on to the next section.
Someone you've known for a while and thought of as friendly and mature suddenly tells you her real feelings. She says you are a transparently false person who only thinks of himself. You are a joke and a fool. Not only is that her opinion, but everyone else thinks so too. She says you know nothing of this because you are self centred and have no understanding of other people. She lists things you have done that you are proud of and says how people see them as pathetic proof of your weak and immature character. She finishes saying "I thought you ought to know."
If you want to undermine someone's self confidence this is just about the perfect way to do it. Most people would be deeply affected by such an attack even if the only true part was that the attacker doesn't like them. But does this require an immediate, intense, physical response? No. Beating the speaker senseless is illegal and pointless. Some effort is probably needed to think through what has been said and perhaps get evidence as to whether it is true or not. However, that requires calm reflection and is best done in a state of mental calm and quiet. It is possible that there is some truth in the allegations, so effort might be needed to improve oneself and re-build a decent reputation. Then there's the risk that your attacker will run off to repeat what she has said to other people, increasing the damage. More quiet reflection. And contacts with others will need to be calm, dignified, and pleasant to rebuild any damage so no room for fight or flight there either.
Now settle down, relax, focus on the issues. What is the worst it could be? She could be right. OK, check the evidence for that first, and consider what you can do to head off the worst reputation damage. The worst would be if you got upset in front of people, because this would tend to add weight to the allegations. Resolve to look calm.
Finally, the best stress control in the world is not going to get you through an experience like this without at least some stress response kicking off and, once it has, the chemicals stick around for hours. Recognise that you are uncertain about the truth of what has been said and what your response should be, but that the feelings of a racing heart and tension are just the result of a false alarm and should not influence your appraisal of the situation. Have a walk or run to clear the chemicals more quickly.
You are relaxing at home when the phone rings and you answer it. To your astonishment it is someone from work you know slightly but who is very much more senior than you are. He explains he is attending a very important meeting the next day with people you have only ever seen in the news and that he needs to know if he should raise a particular issue with them. The issue is clearly a vital one. He wants facts about it from you and fires a series of questions at you, which you have difficulty answering. Unfortunately, there is nobody else who can answer so you must do it. Then he wants opinions and judgments and when you try to avoid giving them he presses you to come off the fence and commit yourself. At the end of the conversation he says he wants to see you in his office the next morning at 8am to go over the matter in more detail.
Important people are always unnerving, but when they put you on the spot with no warning the effect can be paralysing. But does it require immediate fight or flight? No. This is not a physical challenge. You need your mental powers so calm yourself and quieten your mind. The worst outcome is that you say something incorrect, probably under pressure for opinions. Keep your answers factual and accurately worded. State where there is uncertainty and why. Another bad outcome is if he gets angry with your reluctance to over-generalise. If he does, explain your reasons for caution but do not accept responsibility for taking a bet in interpreting the available information. He's not going to hit you. He could make life more difficult for you in future, but there's nothing physical you can do about it. And besides, that won't be for some time so an immediate, intense, physical effort can be ruled out there too.
You are very busy with a long list of things to do. As the day wears on you are constantly interrupted and asked to do even more things. It seems that every time you start you have to stop for some reason. You take work home, desperate to make some kind of progress because if you don't things will only get worse. At home your children demand your attention constantly. Your 8 month old baby won't go to sleep and unless cuddled on your shoulder he cries. The hours roll by and he still has you pinned and unable to do anything around the house, let alone catch up on the office work. At midnight you take your baby to bed hoping that will calm him down. He cries. You are tired and you've achieved nothing all day.
This is the grinding stress of daily life. A succession of events, each requiring action, mixed with obstacles and disappointments. Add in long hours of work and too little sleep for the full, wearisome effect.
Each new delay or new task triggers a feeling that you're going to have to make a more intense effort to get everything done, and so triggers a stress response. But is it an immediate, intense, physical effort? No, so rule that out straight away. What about having to let people down or make apologies for failure? Again, not something that requires an immediate, intense, physical effort. More likely a calm and confident manner will carry off the let down more easily. What about having to do more later to compensate for having missed deadlines? Again, an extra effort but not immediate, and not intensely physical.
The extreme downside outcome is probably failure to do something important by an important deadline, without giving others any prior warning. They might be cross, very cross, but it's extremely unlikely to get physical. To cut down this risk, decide quickly if anyone should be warned about the risk of your not doing something they're expecting you to do. Confirm in your mind that if they are angry about this you will be calm and apologetic, but explain the circumstances in a factual way. On no account will you get physical or escalate the anger, so they won't either. Physical violence can definitely be discounted.
Another concern must be that this is a daily pattern and if continued "I'll never get anything done." That's an exaggeration, but if you're finding it hard to do things you've planned you may need to change your plan or your timetable. That will require a calm analysis and probably some creative thinking. It is best to be in a state of calm for this.
You've had a hard day at work in the city and now face a train journey home. The journey itself should take 43 minutes and, by walking briskly and running a bit, you arrive just in time for the 19.17 from platform 4. But even as you enter the station you can see there's trouble. Huge crowds of people stand watching the arrivals/departures board. Your train isn't even listed yet. You stand and watch the board for a few minutes. A man in uniform wearing a flourescent jacket with the words "Customer Assistance" walks by and you stop him, tell him where you want to go, and ask when the next train is. He nods, and looks past you at the arrivals/departures board. "There's nothing listed yet" he says. An announcement tells you there's been a fatality at a station on the line you need so all services that way have been severely delayed. Time for plan B. You get on a train to somewhere else, knowing you can change trains later on and get home by a longer route. Twenty minutes later the train pulls out of the station. It's packed with people and you are standing in almost unbearable heat. Ten minutes later the train stops. An hour later it is evacuated to the nearest station due to mechanical failure. The night is young.
This is another example of being blocked from doing what you wanted to do, but this time there's the added factor of physical discomfort and fatigue, piled on at the end of the day. The lack of reliable information and pointless "customer assistance" tempts you to complain angrily. Some people do. Most people around you look tired and strained.
As before, rule out the possibility of fight or flight and phone ahead if there's anyone waiting for you. Notice that other people appear strained and some are angry. They are going through a stress response, but that's their mistake and not an indication that you should gear up physiologically in the same way. You may be sweating and a little hot. That's because it is hot in the carriage and not evidence that a fight or flight response is appropriate. If you have experienced stressed feelings the chemicals are still in your bloodstream giving you some stressed feelings, but again this is the result of a false alarm and not evidence that physical arousal is required.
You are unemployed and your money is running out. You have been interviewed for a great job and the recruiting agency thinks you have a good chance - perhaps the best of any candidate. However, the employer is slow to make a decision and you have been waiting for a week. If you get the job your problems are solved. If not things look pretty bleak. Every day people ask you "Have you heard anything yet?" The phone rings - but it's not for you. Your spouse looks more worried than you. You look through the newspapers for other jobs but there's nothing. You go back over the recent interview and the feedback from the agency. What is the decision going to be?
"Worry, worry, worry. What to do, you know?" As my old Polish landlady used to say. This kind of worry goes on for a long time, making it dangerous unless you clear up the uncertainty about responses quickly and conclusively.
Consider the likelihood that an immediate, intense, physical effort is needed. Nil, obviously, whatever the company's decision. There's nothing you can do to influence the decision. There's little point in trying to guess the outcome. Cover the downside risk of not getting the job by continuing to hunt for another one as effectively as you can. Calm your spouse. Assure people you will let them know when you hear something. When the phone rings, remember that whatever the result the only responses required from you will be careful reappraisal of your job hunt, or replanning your life for the new job. Both will require calm consideration.
You've just given a speech at a business conference. You thought it went well but there are lots of good speakers. Someone who looks older and richer than you are approaches you, introduces himself, and says how enormously impressed he was by what you said. He looks at you expectantly.
For once, good news is the stressor. Suddenly you need to do something. That expectant look. What does it mean? Is "Thanks very much" going to be good enough? Is this an opportunity of some kind and, if so, what?
Before making your speech you should have considered your response to various reactions from the audience. In every realistic case the response is to be calm, listen to what they say, agree with praise and promise to think about criticisms, and so on. So when praise comes you remind yourself that this is not a cause for immediate, intense, physical effort and that your mind needs to be calm and open to unexpected possibilities. Follow the low risk route with a response like "Thank you, I've been working on it for some time." Now, without taking unnecessary risks, probe for more information, "Was there anything in particular that was of interest to you?" and prepare to listen calmly to the answer, opening your mind to whatever might come. The most extreme imaginable outcome is that you are offered a job or a large sum of money for a little advice. No fight or flight required and it won't be immediate whatever the offer.
You have been treated badly at work by your boss. It has cost you personal time and money. You have been insulted and the result is that your career has probably been blighted. You feel you have to do something but there is nobody you can speak to except your boss. You think about what you want from him and your hand hovers over the phone, about to call him and ask for a meeting. You pause. Your boss is a bully and an egotist. He is not a listener. He is selfish and unfair, but thinks he is a wonderful person everyone likes. You have to do something, but is this the right way? You can't think of anything else.
Psychologically, this is a fight and with a person higher up the hierarchy than you. Every instinct says this is going to get physical. On top of that there seems no realistic way out. Your boss has you trapped.
But, of course, in our modern world a fight at work is very, very unlikely to get physical, especially if you stay calm rather than escalating tempers. However, there are other reasons why an effort of some kind is in consideration and kicking off your stress response. There's the preparation for the meeting. Since it seems an almost hopeless situation your instinct is that a big effort is needed to find a solution to the problem. However, rule out a big physical effort. This problem calls for a calm and analytical effort to come up with an approach that has a good upside and minimal downside. Then there's the likelihood that you will have to do something after the meeting to take advantage of progress or recover from a set back. This is not immediate, nor is it going to be an intense physical effort. Don't make the call now. Give it some more thought, then act.
You are happily married. A new employee in your office is assigned to work for you. The newcomer is extremely attractive - much more attractive than you are - and is attentive to you. He/she is so attractive and attentive that it is immediately difficult to behave in a normal way towards her/him. If you respond to their overtures it will be seen by everyone, but you don't want to go too far the other way.
This situation includes the deeply unsettling element of sex combined with all sorts of socially charged risks. The newcomer's manner is probably his/her way of getting what he/she wants but that doesn't make the situation any easier. Some concentration is needed to keep your manner normal and avoid being influenced, but this is not an intensely physical effort. On the contrary, since you need to be calmer and more subdued than you would be if your returned the overtures a calm state is the best choice.
A vital document has to be completed and sent by you before midday. There is a lot to do and a real risk of missing something important, or leaving in a mistake that totally destroys your credibility, with ramifications so serious you don't want to think of them. You work all morning at frantic speed without a break. You desperately need input from two colleagues who leave it until the last minute. One of them is in a meeting. At 11.55am you send the document to print and the printer jams. Your computer hangs.
Actually running to the printer might save a couple of seconds, so it is easy to feel that an intense, physical effort is entirely justified.
However, this is a situation where the marginal advantage is outweighed by the disadvantages of making more mistakes (from a narrower focus) and being less flexible in your thinking and less able to solve problems. Furthermore, the health problems caused by repeatedly turning on the fight or flight response are so serious that a stress response is just not worth it. The same can be said about driving a car, where a fight or flight response provides heightened senses and faster reactions. It's only worth it in a genuine emergency and frequent drivers should just drive less aggressively so that heightened senses and faster reactions are not needed.
As usual there are indirect reasons for making an effort, such as the action that would be needed if you missed the deadline, but will any of them require an immediate, intense, physical effort?
Some of this pressure might have been reduced by some precautionary planning earlier. Perhaps a paper print out is not essential and an e-mail would be acceptable while the paper is prepared. Is there a way to avoid being dependent on the input of people who might not be available? And so on.
It takes some practice to get good at analysing situations and news to defuse the stressful elements. However, with practice it becomes possible to do it more quickly and comprehensively. Moreover, strategies for managing extreme downside risks (especially in social situations) soon become second nature. The effort needed to manage the contribution of uncertainty to psychological stress reduces over time while effectiveness should increase.
Learning also takes time because, even when you think all the right thoughts, the effect on stress is not always immediate or strong enough to prevent or finish a stress response. To get the full effects you have to repeat the thoughts, with variations and extra reasons. You need to hang your belief on evidence. It also helps when events turn out as predicted since this bolsters your confidence in your judgments about when an immediate, intense, physical response is needed.
About the author: Matthew Leitch has been studying the applied psychology of learning and memory since about 1979 and holds a BSc in psychology from University College London. Until recently he worked as a consultant in risk management and systems for a leading professional services firm.
Contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Words © 2003 Matthew Leitch
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