One of the things that causes the most stress in my life is uncertainty. The inability to make plans or anticipate the future is so unsettling. The source of uncertainty can range from the mundane (will it stop raining?) to the sentimental (will she call me back?) to the serious (did I make the right choice? will he survive?), but the upshot is the same: a feeling of helplessness and stress.
Today I read an article in Time magazine, about a recent study published in Nature Communication observing the stress induced by states of uncertainty. They had a few study subjects guess whether or not there was a snake under a set of rocks; bummer thing was, if they picked the wrong rock, they would get an electric shock. (fun study!). The subjects showed more physiologic signs of stress if they weren't sure the shock was coming, and less stress if they knew it was going to happen. The author, Stephen de Berker, wrote, “Uncertainty is difficult for the brain because it makes it hard to figure out what to do [and] what decisions to make. I suspect stress—both the arousal component and the unpleasantness of it—help us deal with uncertain situations possibly by making us more alert, and also incentivizes us to avoid them.”
But maybe we don't need to avoid uncertainty (and really, we can't!). Maybe we can respond to uncertainty in a positive way. Of course we can!
A core improv skill is the ability to embrace uncertainty – or as a colleague of mine once said, it's more than embracing, it's thriving in uncertainty. As improvisers, we reshape our perspective and responses to the (neverending) state of uncertainty that is life, and learn how to live in the moment, respond in the moment, and adapt in positive ways to every change, twist, and turn. Instead of feeling thwarted by uncertainty, we blossom in it.
The author of the Nature Comm study went on to say, “I suspect that some meditative or religious practices which extoll the virtue of acknowledging only the present tense, or accepting our fate, might help reduce stress by attenuating our sensitivity to uncertainty,” he says. “Since uncertainty is about what’s going to happen in the future, if you’re completely absorbed in the present, then it seems likely that uncertainty will impact your stress less.”
Improv skills are all about staying in the present. It's that ability to attune to everything around and within us that helps us respond in the moment.
Life is intrinsically uncertain, even without rocks, snakes, and electric shocks. But rather than letting this lead to a constant state of stress, we can use our improvisation skills to thrive in uncertainty, every day.