Why anxiety and certainty walk hand in hand.

 Louise Altman, author of  “The Intentional Workplace” blog, is one of my favourite writers. She has this great gift of being able to write in a thoroughly engaging way on complex topics, yet with marvellous clarity on the ideas she discusses. Her writing reveals her depth of knowledge in the areas she writes on, which in itself is impressive and inspiring.
(Note to self: read more widely!)

This week she wrote on “Anxiety and the Quest for Certainty – Revisited.”

She makes some great points about how the way in which we conduct our lives today creates a relentless cycle of uncertainty and anxiety, each feeding on the other. Life seems to be getting incredibly busy with seemingly never-ending demands on our time and energy. This can lead to worry and the more we worry, the greater we end up thinking either about what might happen or ruminating over what has gone wrong. Worrying about stuff we have no control over, is simply pointless and exhausting, and can if unchecked increase your risk of developing a mental illness.

Depression is set to become the leading cause of disability across the world by 2020, overtaking cancer and heart disease. Finding a way to step off the daily treadmill is becoming increasingly important.

She discusses how our brain loves certainty because it mitigates threat. When we feel we are in a place of safety, our brain can relax, and goes to work looking for patterns in the information we receive; comparing and contrasting. When we recognise something we are familiar with, it makes us feel good, we experience calmness, confidence and stability as a result. It’s like going to a party and not knowing any of the other guests. Once you recognise a familiar face, you can feel yourself relaxing and end up being more likely to  enjoy the occasion.

We use familar patterns to predict our outcomes and our brain is a brilliant prediction machine.

The third point she highlights is in advocating mindfulness as a means to keep us in the present and therefore better placed to deal with what is going on in the “here and now” rather than worrying about the “what if’s” and “what went wrong”.

Because as much as our brain craves certainty, it loathes uncertainty, which triggers the brain’s limbic system and our fight or flight response. Evian Gordon a neuroscientist talks about how we are wired to either move towards a stimulus (because we expect a reward) or away (because it could be dangerous). Having the ability to recognise danger is of course an essential survival tool.

You can find the complete version of Louise’s article here.

It is well worth settling down in a quiet place with a cuppa for 10-15 minutes to really absorb her powerful message.

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