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How uncertainty fuels anxiety

Stashed in: Brain, Anxiety, Worrying is like a rocking chair.

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Ultimately there’s no escape from living with uncertainty, for anyone.

No matter how often you compare yourself to others, or check your email, or read the news, no matter how much you worry, you’ll never know what happens after you die, or what other people really think of you, or what your life will be like in five years. So it helps to get comfortable with the small uncertainties, too. Then, at least, you’re used to it.

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He compares extreme intolerance of uncertainty to an allergic reaction. “If you’re allergic to nuts, and you have a piece of birthday cake that has a drop of almonds in it, you have a violent physical reaction to it,” he says. “A small amount of a substance that’s not harmful to most people provokes a violent reaction in you. It’s like a psychological allergy.”

Grupe and Jack Nitschke, also of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have developed a theory of what brain mechanisms might be at play in this psychological allergy, which they laid out in Nature Reviews Neuroscience in 2013. It’s complicated—“There’s not a part of your brain that’s the IU part,” Grupe says. Rather, intolerance of uncertainty is likely linked to several different brain processes, including, Grupe suspects, emotional regulation, threat detection, and safety detection (the last two of which are distinct, separate processes).

In an ambiguous or unpredictable situation, the brain is going to look for clues in the environment, things it knows from past experience are associated with threat or safety. If this is unsuccessful, and the brain can’t tell what is dangerous and what isn’t, then anything could seem like a threat. Threat and safety detection has been linked to the amygdala, and emotion regulation seems to be the domain of the prefrontal cortex. Grupe also thinks the insula could play a role in processing information about the body and its environment to help create internal, subjective feelings.

“These processes are so intertwined,” Grupe says. “There’s a silly figure at the end of the paper with arrows pointing in every direction.”

The brain is a complicated device. It sounds like anxiety is connected to many important functions. 

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