Uncertainty is “at the root” of all anxiety. A neuropsychologist explains how to master living with it

Dr. Julia DiGangi is a neuropsychologist, who completed her residency at Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Medicine, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Dr. DiGangi has also studied genetics, trauma, resilience and more at Columbia, the University of Chicago and Georgetown. She has nearly two decades of experience studying the connection between our brains and our behavior.


It was early in my career when a patient of mine, Jerry, told me, “I’d never know for sure when my dad was going to beat the blood out of me, so I’d tease him in the morning.” Better get it out of the way.

This was an early exposure to what I now understand to be one of the most powerful forces in our lives: uncertainty. Uncertainty is the promise of life for all of us. For more than twenty years I have watched people come out of unspeakable pain and venture back into a future that denies all certainty. I work with people who have experienced shocking traumas, and predictably, our early conversations are filled with questioning requests for some assurance: How can I be absolutely sure that nothing like this will ever happen again? they ask me.

The answer is: they can’t.

After so many years, the thing that still takes my breath away is the grace and courage of the people who accept this truth and say: I get up not because I know for sure, but because I hope anyway.

The pain of uncertainty is a well-studied neuropsychological phenomenon. For example, when researchers hook people up to machines that deliver electric shocks, people report that it’s more painful to be uncertain Self they might be shocked rather than sure Want be shocked. This tells you something important: Your emotional feelings surrounding your situations of uncertainty can be, quite literally, more painful than the physical pain.

Because uncertainty can be so painful, your brain spends a lot of time trying to avoid it. But it is transforming your relationship with this energy that will empower you. Major change begins when you understand that uncertainty cannot be understood effectively at the situation level. If you try to plan your life situation by situation, you will hinder your emotional evolution. Attempts to reduce uncertainty in every situation that arises sap your energy because you don’t understand the deeper dynamics that generate emotional pain in situations.

Uncertainty has a predictable rhythm to its energy, a way in which it reliably makes you think and feel regardless of the situation. You become much more emotionally powerful when you turn your attention away from solving each unresolved scenario and instead focus more on the person you are experiencing. regularly become in the shadow of energy uncertainties.

We’re not trying to avoid uncertainty because we can’t. Instead, we are learning to work with it. This is a critically important distinction because, paradoxically, it is the things you do to avoid uncertainty, and not the uncertainty itself, that are causing most of your emotional pain.

Overthinking, overworking, overdoing it, and so on are one answer to avoiding pain. You might work because you like it, but you Abovework because you are afraid of what Could be happen if you don’t. The act of thinking probably gives you a lot of pleasure, but Abovethinking is brutal. And where giving is pleasant, Aboveto give is to exhaust.

Overs are all a defense against anxiety. The logic is this: if I work more, give more and think more, then I will be safe. All forms of anxiety, from mild to pathological, can be understood as a dysfunctional relationship with certainty.

To stand up strongly in the face of a life that promises no certainty, it is helpful to first realize how the energy of uncertainty behaves universally. Let me give you a clinical example to clarify this concept and then I will apply it to your life. Take PTSD. PTSD cannot be diagnosed while people are in the throes of active trauma, such as fighting. PTSD cannot be diagnosed in the middle of a war zone due to the responses that PTSD elicits pathological in a non-traumatic environment they are extremely adaptive in the midst of trauma. Things like hypervigilance, feeling constantly on guard, or being unable to sleep can save your life if you’re at war.

It is when people return home to safe environments but safety-seeking behaviors persist that pathology sets in. For example, I’ve worked with combat veterans who refuse to drive cars, take public transportation, eat at restaurants, shop at stores, or travel to crowded places like hotels or movie theaters because they feel like it. I could be dangerous. The (often unconscious) strategy is to stay safe by avoiding the uncertain. In other words, avoiding these places is a safety-seeking behavior. The problem, however, isn’t the trauma that underpins their pathological anxiety; it is the search for security. PTSD isn’t about dangerous things being dangerous; it’s about the inability to see things as safe as such.

In your life, the things you do to protect yourself from pain (overdoing it, working too much, giving too much, trying too hard) are major causes of your pain. The extreme search for safety is essential for any painful form of anxiety: post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder. The point here is relevant whether or not you have clinically significant anxiety. There comes a point where the behaviors you engage in to keep yourself safe from uncertainty become the same behaviors that hurt you.

Even though the instances in your life may be less extreme than PTSD, the energy moves just the same. For example, you’re not sure if people really like you, so you go overboard with them, trying to become a version of who you think they think you should be. And then you wonder why you find it so exhausting to be around people. You’re not sure if your social media followers care enough about you and your content, so you overproduce, create content even when you’re exhausted, and then wonder why you feel so exhausted.

The energy of uncertainty is at the root of all your forms of anxiety. But there’s more. The energy of uncertainty moves through your nervous system in nearly identical ways, regardless of the situation that created it. It affects the brain and body in predictable ways. Neurophysiological studies show that even minor forms of uncertainty produce changes in physiology, including brain activations in regions involved in threat detection and decision making, as well as increased sweating. Do some situations make your thoughts race faster or make your heart race? Absolutely, but that’s a difference of degree, not kind. In other words, the energy of uncertainty affects your nervous system in similar ways in a number of different situations.

You take back your power when you realize that the energy of uncertainty does not live In the situation but it is the same energy that creates the situation. Your situation doesn’t make you ask: What if? Rather, it is the act of anxiously asking What if? that shapes your situation.

To work with the energy of uncertainties in a way that strengthens your leadership, be the hero of your story.

Reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Driving with Emotional Power by Julia DiGangi. Copyright 2023 Julia DiGangi. All rights reserved.

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