How Does Your Brain React in the Face of Uncertainty?

Will I be fired from my job? What will the results of my last medical test be? Will I see that person I like again? Uncertainty is a distressing experience. How does your brain orchestrate it and how can you better manage it? Find out here.
How Does Your Brain React in the Face of Uncertainty?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 20 April, 2023

There’s no worse feeling than living with uncertainty. It’s like walking down a long corridor and not knowing what’s at the end of it. Is there something threatening waiting for you? Or, will you find what you’ve been longing for? Your mind processes situations of which you don’t know the outcomes, as dangerous and torturous. This explains your feelings of stress, the knot in your stomach, and even your sleepless nights. But, how does your brain react in the face of uncertainty?

In fact, your brain is used to handling ambiguous information so it can make its own inferences and make decisions at complex moments. However, a problem arises when uncertainty isn’t occasional but is maintained over time. For example, being worried about your job and if you’ll keep it.

Moreover, we live in uncertain times. Consequently, social and economic crises can leave you suspended in a sphere where, all of a sudden, nothing seems certain. How can you deal with this kind of situation? If you want to adopt appropriate tools for handling uncertainty, the first thing you need to know is how your neural mechanisms build this perception.

Much anxiety stems from difficulties in dealing with uncertainty.

figures with threads to represent how the brain acts in the face of uncertainty
Faced with uncertainty, your brain invents all kinds of futures. Sometimes, they can be quite catastrophic.

How does your brain react in the face of uncertainty?

Imagine that you’ve sent a message to your best friend. They’re taking a really long time to answer, even though you know they’ve seen the message. That double blue tick and their lack of response set your alarm bells ringing. Are they mad at you? Is there a problem? Although one of the most basic cognitive mechanisms of your brain is to deal with uncertainty, you’re extremely vulnerable to it.

Research conducted by the University of Regina, (Canada) and published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, indicates that fear of the unknown, of what we can’t foresee, master, or explain, is one of the most basic instincts. In fact, our brains are like overprotective parents who need to have their reality under control. Therefore, when things are out of our grasp or understanding, we panic.

Cognitive neuroscience has the answers

So, what happens in your internal universe when these unexpected twists of fate arise? Cognitive neuroscience suggests that the answer lies in the overexertion of neural mechanisms. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA) conducted some extremely interesting work in this regard.

This research claims that, during uncertain situations, the mediodorsal thalamus stimulates the prefrontal cortex so we make decisions and act in the complex context. However, there’s a problem, because uncertainty is a catapult for anxiety. And, when this psychophysiological variable arises, it’s extremely difficult to reflect, analyze a situation, or think of a suitable strategy.

The effects of uncertain situations at a neurological level

The way in which your brain reacts in the face of uncertainty isn’t always adaptive. After all, you might spend all day responding to situations you don’t have complete information about. A challenge arises if you face a scenario in which uncertainty remains over time. That’s when different effects occur that you may well recognize.

To begin with, when uncertainty interferes with your mental processes, it interrupts your feelings of calm and security and causes emotional reactivity. As such, you enter a state of hypervigilance in which you might anticipate something catastrophic happening in the future. These are situations in which your brain regions such as the amygdala and the insula take control.

The human brain will always need to know in advance the outcome of anything, in order to have control over its reality. When this doesn’t happen and that perception is maintained over time, stress and anxiety appear.

Despite the fact that uncertainty forms a part of daily life, we’re not all able to tolerate it. For example, imagine that you’re waiting for the result of a medical test and it’s taking a while to arrive. Or, think of when things were going wrong with your partner or when you were afraid you were going to lose your job.

Often, your brain responds to uncertainty with anxiety. While this is a normal reaction, it can get the better of you. Moreover, some people always have trouble handling uncertainty. This can give way to generalized anxiety disorder.

During these scenarios, the mind experiences the following:

  • Heightened alertness and hypervigilance.
  • Anxiety and negative predictions. They increase fear and the possibility of giving suitable responses and employing healthy and adjusted coping strategies.
  • Uncertainty is processed as a lack of control in the face of a threat. In addition, there’s a lack of information about what might happen. Thus, terrifying predictions are made that intensify any feelings of discomfort.

Becoming a captive of stress

No doubt this has happened to you at some time or another. Indeed, the most common response when you’re faced with uncertain contexts is stress. These are completely normal mechanisms in abnormal situations. The key lies in knowing how to regulate them without getting carried away by them. However, in the absence of this psychological process, you might experience the symptoms listed below:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle pains.
  • Cramps and dizziness.
  • Digestive alterations.
  • Falling into loops of excessive thinking.
  • Insomnia and eating disorders.
  • Feeling that everything is beyond your capabilities and that you have no control over anything.

Uncertainty makes you personalize threats and jump to conclusions. If you applied a more relaxed and flexible mental approach, you’d be better able to face these situations.

Depression and inflexible thinking

Your brain sometimes acts in a pathological manner in the face of uncertainty. In this case, your inability to handle uncertainty could lead you to develop a depressive disorder. In these kinds of situations, your mind adopts an inflexible approach. This means it’s impossible to react to any complex situation. You experience feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and apathy.

In the absence of certainty, your brain generates negative and fatalistic thoughts. It’s hard to draw up plans or find solutions when inside you there are only fears. In fact, you find it impossible to tackle these difficult emotions that cloud your thoughts.

Thoughtful senior man with light bulbs around
You must accept that you can’t be in control of absolutely everything that surrounds you

Strategies for managing anxiety

Constant uncertainty leads you to live your life in survival mode. You don’t think, you just react. You don’t act, you let yourself go. This can easily lead to a mood disorder. In these instances, you lack the tools to handle experiences that are tinged with doubt or your fears about what might happen tomorrow.

You need to train your flexibility and psychological serenity if you want to deal with uncertainty. To do this, you must restructure some of your thoughts and conceptions. You must also commit yourself to change, employing the following guidelines.

1. Become aware of what you can control

When you’re surrounded by uncertainty, you have the feeling that everything is collapsing under your feet. But, it’s not like that. Instead, you need to focus on those aspects of your life over which you do have control. As the psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, once said: “When are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”.

Also, keep in mind the simple fact that uncertainty is an inherent part of being human and is something you must accept.

2. Deactivate your negative thoughts and look for solutions

You should challenge your negative thoughts and become aware of how unhelpful they are in these circumstances. Apply proper troubleshooting techniques instead. For each challenge or fear that you have in your mind, think of ten possible solutions. Be creative and employ a flexible and resilient approach.

3. Visualization and relaxation exercises

Relaxation techniques are ideal tools for regulating stress and taking greater control of your mind. Remember, a calm mind thinks better. Therefore your fears will be reduced and you’ll make better decisions.

In addition, try some visualization techniques. In your mind, devise the reality of your situation and some possible solutions to deal with it. This will allow you to reduce your feelings of stress and increase your cognitive flexibility.


Clearly, the way in which your brain reacts in the face of uncertainty may not always be the healthiest. Indeed, it prefers certainty and predictability.

However, it’s your responsibility to learn mechanisms to better manage your uncertainty. This will guarantee your adaptation to an environment that’s always complex. That said, don’t hesitate to request specialized help if you have problems achieving it.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.