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Uncertainty more stressful than certain pain, study shows
Posted in Research, Treatment

If knowledge is power, what is the effect of uncertainty on the human psyche?

Uncertainty causes stress

Apparently, uncertainty has a profound effect on human stress response. A recent study revealed that not knowing if pain was coming was more stressful than knowing it was definitely coming. Researchers at University College London set up a computer game in which the 45 participants had to turn over rocks under which there may or may not have been a snake. They had to predict whether or not a snake was under the rock that they were about to select. If there was, participants would receive a small electric shock on their hand.

Stress was measured by asking participants to rate how stressed they felt. Physical symptoms of stress, such as pupil dilation and perspiration, were also measured. When the pattern of finding snakes under rocks became predictable, participants were less stressed than when they were uncertain. Whether they were certain of a 0 percent or 100 percent chance of receiving a shock, stress responses were lower than those who had a 50-50 chance of shock. In other words, not knowing was worse than knowing, even when knowing meant pain was on its way.

Stress produces positive and negative effects

The uncertain participants were also better at guessing which rocks had snakes under them, suggesting that the increased stress response led to better risk assessment. This finding serves as a reminder of the positive effects of stress, such as improved concentration and performance. According to senior author Sven Bestmann, Ph.D., at the University College of London Institute of Neurology, where the study was conducted, the stress response to uncertainty may be beneficial from a survival standpoint. “Appropriate stress responses might be useful for learning about uncertain, dangerous things in the environment,” he commented.

Although these findings corroborate the well-known relationship between uncertainty and stress, this study was the first to quantifiably measure both the positive and negative effects of uncertainty on the degree of stress.

Being proactive reduces stress

Today’s world is full of uncertainty, but there are steps that people can take to reduce the powerful effect it can have on the human psyche. Being proactive by planning ahead can greatly reduce uncertainty in both the short and long term. Open and honest communication with others at home, work and in every area of life reduces uncertainty for oneself and for others. Staying informed and having realistic expectations helps to maintain a healthy perspective regardless of how things ultimately turn out. Those with strong faith in a higher power also tend to worry less about the future.

When stress becomes overwhelming

While normal stress can motivate us toward healthy behavior, too much stress can be damaging and sometimes fatal. Extreme or prolonged excessive stress can result in physical and mental illness and promote substance use. The Sovereign Health Group provides a residential treatment center in El Paso, Texas, for those seeking addiction treatment and dual diagnosis treatment. Sovereign Health uses experiential therapy to teach clients the life skills required to cope with stress in healthy ways. To learn more contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at


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