There's A Silver Lining To Stress Over Uncertainty

Not all anxiety is counterproductive.
Nicolas Loran via Getty Images

The unknown is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't mean we like it.

Waiting to hear back about a job interview, test results from a doctor or even just feedback from your boss on an important project can feel excruciating. But the stress we feel during periods of uncertainty may give us a distinct performance advantage, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Researchers from University College London demonstrated this counterintuitive finding by zapping 45 study volunteers with a mild electric shock while they played a computer game in which their avatars turned over rocks that sometimes had snakes under them.

Half the volunteers knew when they would get a shock, and half were in an "uncertainty group" in which they were told to guess whether or not there would be a snake under the rock as part of the video game. If there was, they would receive an electric shock on their hand. As time went on, participants were better able to adjust and guess which rock would yield to an electric shock -- but the study authors made sure to keep uncertainty levels high throughout the task by changing the odds of a snake appearing.

Scientists measured participants' uncertainty during the game and their subsequent stress levels, which ended up matching the individuals' reported stress they felt after completing the game. The authors also monitored the individuals' pupil dilation and perspiration.

They found that people who were uncertain when they'd be shocked saw a significant increase in anxiety compared to those who knew whether or not to anticipate getting zapped.

But the researchers also found that the higher anxiety levels actually helped the uncertain individuals, because it allowed them to better assess risk.

In other words, the study found that individuals who had the most stress during a period of uncertainty in the game were better at judging whether or not a snake was under a rock. This suggests that the anxiety that stems from uncertainty may help us make a better decision in the long run and may offer "some survival benefit," according to the authors.

"Using our model we could predict how stressed our subjects would be not just from whether they got shocks but how much uncertainty they had about those shocks," lead study author Archy de Berker said in a statement. "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."

Uncertainty is a thread in our everyday lives -- not just in important areas like careers and relationships, but also in daily tasks. It prompts us to make adjustments to mitigate its effects, like choosing to order an Uber to the airport as opposed to taking a chance trying to find a cab. If there isn't a concrete way to abate the unknown, the stress may help us solve it.

"Appropriate stress responses might be useful for learning about uncertain, dangerous things in the environment," senior study author Sven Bestmann said in a statement. "Modern life comes with many potential sources of uncertainty and stress, but it has also introduced ways of addressing them."

While it's ultimately good news that stress can help us perform better during moments of variability, it's also important to remember that excess anxiety can lead to a host of health problems.

The key is harnessing stress from uncertainty, but not letting it become all-consuming. The takeaway? A little anxiety can push us in a positive direction.

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