Why uncertainty stresses us out so much — and how improv can help
A landmark study shows that just 20 minutes of improv thinking exercises can increase our uncertainty tolerance.
In life, whether we realize it or not, we’re constantly assessing probabilities: the likelihood that a deal will close, that our new crush likes us, that our kid will throw a tantrum at bathtime tonight…
These mental calculations are a survival mechanism: our brain’s way of preparing for all the potential scenarios we may find ourselves in. But, what happens when we encounter an unprecedented challenge like, say, a global pandemic? One for which we can’t reasonably predict the outcome?
In short, it makes our brains overheat
Uncertainty puts stress on our bodies in ways we often underestimate: it increases our cortisol levels, makes us less resilient in the face of setbacks, and paralyzes us with indecision. Unlike fear, which is often acute and short-lived, uncertainty can make us feel like a hard-drive overheating: Our brains spin and spin on the various possibilities and outcomes, unable to land on a plan or solution.
In fact, a 2016 study of uncertainty and “acute stress responses” found that people are more stressed out by the possibility they will experience discomfort than they are when they know something terrible is coming.
So, what do we do when there’s not much we can do?
We can increase our uncertainty tolerance
What the heck is uncertainty tolerance?
Uncertainty tolerance (UT) is a psychological phenomenon related to how anxious we feel when we’re unable to predict the outcome of a situation. Those of us with low UTs are more likely to engage in behaviors to reduce uncertainty, like frequently checking up on delegated tasks at work, calling our kids when they’re out with friends, or doing extensive research before making a purchase. Meanwhile, those with higher UTs are much less likely to feel anxious when they’re unable to perform these kinds of risk-mitigating behaviors.
Having a low UT isn’t inherently a bad thing, but psychologists have shown that it can put us at greater risk for anxiety and depression. So, if we find that our low UT is making us too rigid, or causing unproductive stress, there are ways we can increase our ability to “sit with uncertainty.”
One of them is improv thinking
In fact, one of the largest-ever randomized experiments on improv, published in March 2020, shows that improv increases “divergent thinking, tolerance of uncertainty, and affective well-being.”
The researchers found that, in part, improv works like uncertainty exposure therapy: participants are thrown into situations where they don’t know what will happen from one moment to the next. But, more than that, improv thinking shifts our relationship to uncertainty: it celebrates and encourages participants to embrace uncertainty “in a non-judgmental, trusting, and mutually supportive environment.”
So, unlike, the harsh or unpleasant experience we typically associate with “exposure therapy,” the study asserts that “the new associations developed through improv are likely non-threatening or even pleasant.”
In other words: it’s fun.
The study found that just 20 minutes of simple improv thinking exercises like “word-at-a-time story,” (each person adds a word at a time to form — you guessed it — a story) and “co-created characters” (partners pretend to know someone in common and take turns to describe that person) consistently increased participants’ UT.
And, you don’t have to be in a controlled lab setting to replicate their results. Every single improv thinking exercise used in the study requires zero equipment and can be done at home with your family, with your coworkers on zoom, or in our free, weekly virtual classes (*wink* *nudge*).
We’re talking mental wellness without the fish oil burps, people. AKA, the dream.