Protecting ourselves against uncertainty

Birds, and other animals, use each other to reduce the burden of uncertainty. Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

Uncertainty is one of the greatest contributors to anxiety.  And yet unsureness is part of the human condition.  Our brains compute on the basis of probabilities.  We share this with animals.  Watching the birds outside, I can see that they are always making fine decisions between continuing what they are doing in safety, or interrupting it because of felt danger.

We need to be sensitive to danger in order to protect ourselves.  So we have several built-in alarms.  Psychologists are aware that a major player in this is the amygdala, which plays a part on processing fear, memory, and decisions.  So if we are caught up in an anxious, fearful response, then the amygdala will be in there somewhere, doing its thing.

The difficulty is that, when our fear processes go into overdrive, they have such a profound affect on our functioning that we can’t operate normally.  How can we learn to be unsure, without our internal alarm system taking over too much?


One possible strategy is to use the presence of others to reassure.  This is a tactic used by many animals, who use group movement strategies to relieve the pressure on individuals.  An example is the birds in your garden, who use each others’ responses as clues as to how to behave.

This is why living in groups or families is protective of mental health.  The group takes on much of the decision burden.  And it is why living alone can sometimes be bad for mental health.  The burden of decisions under uncertainty can make both anxiety and depression worse.


Secondly, an individual can use concepts to create a structured approach to living under uncertainty.  Religions, for instance, have systems of behaviour, ritual and belief which dramatically reduce the number of options open to an individual, and make social life far more certain.  Legal systems often aim to do the same thing.

On an individual level, we can develop personal rules and systems which narrow the options available to us.  I often encourage counselling clients to develop a daily routine, partly because it significantly reduces dithering, and generates firmer action.

Sometimes developing this personal structure takes hard work.  It is much harder to structure your life confidently if you have been undermined by difficult or selfish parents, or traumatic events, in the past.


Uncertainty is part of life.  Parts of our brains, even, have evolved as alarm systems, to respond to risk and uncertainty with danger signals.  Unfortunately, these internal reactions can get out of hand, and stop us functioning effectively.

Two important ways to protect ourselves against uncertainty are:

  • the presence of others (social support)
  • the use of a structured approach (organisational support)

To minimise the effect of uncertainty, and therefore to help control anxiety, we can try to develop supportive social networks, and helpful personal routines.  Strengthening our social networks, and our daily timetables, can be highly protective against mental distress.