Uncertainty Leads To Higher Stress Than Inevitable Pain

Posted: Mar 29 2016, 10:16am CDT | by , in News | Latest Science News

Uncertainty Leads to Higher Stress Than Inevitable Pain
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  • Lack of Certainty leads to Higher Stress Levels than Assured Pain

Scientists have found out that a lack of certainty leads to higher stress levels in subjects than any amount of assured pain.

Being subject to an uncertain outcome which will be painful may cause much more anxiety in subjects than being sure that the painful stimulus will come.

A study at UCL reported this paradoxical finding. It was published in a journal. Those who were given a 50% chance of receiving a painful shock were more stressed than those who were in a situation where the chances were 0% or even 100%. Such is the paradox of human nature which seeks stability and avoids chaos.

The judgment of risk was at play here. Everybody avoids uncertainty because it makes them feel uncomfortable. When you are in a state of suspense, there is always that feeling of being on tenterhooks. 45 subjects were made to play a computer game.

They were supposed to overturn rocks which might have snakes beneath them. They were left to make guesstimates as to whether there would be a snake beneath a rock or not. If there was one, they would be given a mildly painful electric shock on one of their hands.

Over a period of time, these subjects learnt which rocks had snakes beneath them and automatically avoided them. Yet there was a level of randomness involved in this game of chance.

With the passage of time, the rocks were exchanged with each other and interchanged to boot. The result was that the levels of uncertainty got more and more extreme as time progressed.

The stress levels of the volunteers rose accordingly. Levels of stress were higher, the more the uncertainty increased. It was not the electric shocks per se that caused this anxiety and angst.

Rather it was the chances of getting an electric shock anytime without any warning that led to greater apprehension and avoidant behavior.

It seems that unpredictability and stress go together. Not only did the subjects in this seminal study end up sweating more, their pupils also expanded with time.

Both are signs of chronic stress. This reminds one of a job interview. If one holds little faith in the process or is certain of getting the vacancy in the firm, there is little to no stress.

One is relaxed either way. Yet if one has all ones hopes pinned on the slot and doesn’t know whether he or she will grab the vacancy, stress levels go through the roof.

The same applies to medical reports. High expectations and uncertain results play havoc with one’s homeostatic system. The body responds with a flood of chemicals and neurotransmitters as it gets ready for fright, flight or fight.

"From an evolutionary perspective, our finding that stress responses are tuned to environmental uncertainty suggests that it may have offered some survival benefit," explains senior author Dr Sven Bestmann (UCL Institute of Neurology).

"Appropriate stress responses might be useful for learning about uncertain, dangerous things in the environment. Modern life comes with many potential sources of uncertainty and stress, but it has also introduced ways of addressing them.

"For example, taxi apps that show where a car is can offer peace of mind by reducing the uncertainty about when it will arrive. Real-time information boards at bus stops and train platforms perform a similar role, although this can be undermined by unspecified delays which cause stress for passengers and staff alike."

The study got published in Nature Communications.

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/20" rel="author">Sumayah Aamir</a>
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