Why uncertainty can be stressful

Gareth Hughes

Gareth Hughes is the Clinical Lead for Student Space and is a psychotherapist, researcher and writer on student wellbeing, including the book Be Well, Learn Well

Many students find that uncertainty in their own lives and in the world around them, can cause unhelpful levels of stress. Understanding why uncertainty can be stressful can make it easier to manage.

What could be making you stressed?

There are many uncertainties in student life generally, whether you are a new or returning student. Each stage of study brings new challenges, you may be moving to new accommodation or having to take on new responsibilities. New students may be moving to a new area or just wondering what your new university will be like.

In addition, many students report feeling increased stress because of uncertainties in the world around them, such as the ongoing pandemic, political instability, financial uncertainty and concerns about the climate.

This reaction to uncertainty is perfectly normal. As human beings we crave certainty and would often prefer bad news to continued uncertainty.

Our instinctive response to anxiety

Our response to uncertainty has evolved to keep us safe in situations when we might be in danger. If a movement in a bush might be a lion or the wind, it is sensible to be aware and ready to react, just in case it is a lion.

So, when there is great uncertainty around some major aspect of our lives, we go into a state of heightened awareness and arousal.

In the short term this can actually be very helpful. It helps to keep us safe and to react quickly, if we need to.

It is only when the uncertainty persists for a long time that it can become a problem. Being hyper alert is tiring and stressful, if we don’t get a chance to switch off and recuperate or to bring a sense of certainty back to our lives.

Uncertainty isn’t necessarily harmful

This doesn’t mean that uncertainty in your life will inevitably have a negative impact on you and your wellbeing. Not all uncertainty causes us stress. There are many things about which we are uncertain – Will it rain tomorrow? Who will win the Eurovision song contest next year? How many leaves will fall from the trees in your area this autumn? But these things don’t usually cause us any stress.

Uncertainty causes problems for us when we perceive some level of potential threat, in the future, to us and our wellbeing. We worry about the uncertainty of this academic year because it’s important to us. We are worried it will affect our studies, our experience, our friendships, our happiness and our future careers.

The pandemic made me realise that life can be very unpredictable, and it won’t always play out the way you imagined. It’s important to accept those changes and learn to embrace setbacks because you will grow from the experience.

Uncertainty Amidst Covid-19 - Caiyun

How to adapt your approach

You can learn to adapt your approach, thinking and behaviours to reduce the impact of uncertainty and make you feel more positive about the future. Just because there is uncertainty in your life, it does not mean you can’t take control and plan. Doing this will give yourself the best possible opportunity of having a good time as a student.

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Page last reviewed: October 2022