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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jonathan Hoffman

The Stress of Uncertainty

Updated: Jul 28, 2022

We are now living in a time of so-called heightened uncertainty. But perhaps it’s more of a rampant and irrational need for certainty in our culture that is just being exposed.

Certainty is impossible... It just is. I’m completely sure of this fact.

And wanting the impossible is stressful! That’s beyond a shadow of a doubt too.

Stress may be defined in many ways. However, it basically boils down to these two related ideas, the first being that stress involves:

  1. Perceiving pressure.

  2. Not being able to manage or adapt to that pressure.

  3. Or some degree of both.

The second core idea is that possible stress responses are:

  1. Reducing pressure.

  2. Learning how to manage or adapt to that pressure (AKA coping).

  3. Or some degree of both.

Expecting certainty in any way, shape, or form sounds like pressure to me. And responding to stress by seeking certainty as an answer will only make matters worse.

To keep it top of mind: Certainty is irrational because it simply cannot be. Sorry to be redundant but this truth is so easy to forget. I forget it all the time.

Don’t bother trying to think of a counterexample. Something as “obviously” certain as 1+1=2 has been convincingly disputed (at least to me) by some philosophers and mathematicians. If you did come up with a great counterargument, it wouldn’t really matter anyway. In real life, nothing whatsoever is certain. Got it yet? Me neither.

Knowing that certainty does not exist, should we go as far as to never say to anyone “it’s going to be OK? Even to a terrified child or a scared elderly person?

Let’s think it through. It sounds humane and caring. And people like it. Including me.

There are more honest and effective ways to verbalize compassion and empathy, no matter how dire the situation. They do, however, take more presence of mind and an actual skill set.

For instance:

  1. “I’ll be here for you come hell or high water.”

  2. “This is a tough one, so let’s come up with a plan to deal with what’s happening as best we can.”

The above statements encourage acceptance and using coping skills, which are real stress management strategies - unlike spouting nonsense that provides a false and fleeting sense of security and can’t teach anything useful to anyone.

Since nothing is certain, my opinion is not the be-all and end-all on this topic But that’s the best I can muster under the circumstances of reality.

Of that, I really am certain.


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