Uncertainty and Anxiety - Insights from Neuro Science

Posted by Ross Nichols on Wednesday, August 21, 2019 Under: Coaching

I undertook some time ago to speak more about my mental health simply to help de-stigmatise the subject and encourage others to be more open about mental health issues.  Inspired by Sam Ortyl, I’m now following through on this.  This is a post on how my relationship with uncertainty drives my anxiety and how understanding a model of social threat has helped me.

I recently stumbled across an article in ‘Project’ magazine (Issue 298, spring 2019, p. 28-33) entitled ‘Walking in Fog’.  On the face of it, this was about project leadership, specifically how project leaders can operate in volatile ‘unordered’ environments by using dialogue and sense-making to understand the emotional dimensions of a project.  This approach sees projects as social systems and builds psychological safety, which gives project teams permission to make mistakes in pursuit of better performance.  I was intrigued by this and wondered if it could help me in the projects I run (such as organising Salisbury International Coaching Week every year).  Furthermore, I wondered if there was anything here that could be relevant for coaching.

The article drew on work by David Rock of the Neuro Leadership Institute on the 5 key sources of social threat: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness – the SCARF model.  A perceived reduction in any one of these activates avoidance behaviours.  I’d previously heard of this model but never used it.  The neuroscience foundations of the SCARF model are:

·         The human brain is hardwired for survival

·         The human brain responds to a social threat in the same was as to a physical threat – it tries to avoid it.

·         The human brain trusts its own experience above all else when evaluating a threatening situation.

·         The response to social threats generates avoidance emotions such as: fear, anxiety, anger and shame.  Avoidance emotions lead to avoidance behaviours, such as: defensiveness, denial, attack and withdrawal.

·         Conversely, when we feel psychologically safe, the brain generates emotions such as: excitement, trust, joy and love, which enable positive behaviours such as collaboration and creativity.    

The article focused on lack of certainty as a source of threat to project teams.  In summary, project teams are traditionally oriented towards certainty.  They assume that the project environment is ‘ordered’, hence all uncertainty can be managed through appropriate tools such as risk management.  In volatile, unordered environments however, this can result in chasing your own tail as project teams attempt to quantify soft, fluid and fast-changing factors.  Seeking certainty where none is to be found generates anxiety, which in turn leads to ineffective behaviours, such as over-engineering risk management tools.  The alternative approach is to orient towards uncertainty and acknowledge that some elements of project environments are ‘unordered’, for which a more flexible approach is required.  This enables project teams to keep anxiety in check and manage the unordered elements of a project in more appropriate ways.     

This was an eye opener for me.  I’ve been aware for many years that I’m anxious but with little understanding of what lies beneath this.  I can now see that I crave certainty over outcomes for which I am accountable.  Uncertainty drives my anxiety and leads to defensive behaviours such as not delegating, which increases my workload.  I can now look back on some of the struggles I had during my first career in a whole new light!  This insight has had a significant impact on how I manage Salisbury International Coaching Week.  I have brainstormed with other team members to identify which tasks I can delegate whereas previously I squirmed in my seat whenever delegation was mentioned.  The irony here is that I welcome uncertainty in my business and life: I don’t want to know the future as it’s all a wonderful journey of discovery for me.  I’m now embracing the unordered aspects of project management, delegating more, learning to ‘walk in fog’ and trusting that ‘it’ll be alright on the night’!          

For an insight into my inner world of anxiety, and how uncertainty, and the desire for certainty, has played a part, here is poem I wrote about my anxiety in 2018.

    Anxiety and Me

I look at the clock and my mind boots up,
No drowsy lie in here,
Tension grips my stomach and my mind begins to churn
as anxiety has its way with me


We're auld acquaintance Anxiety and me,
I've known you all my life,
Yet I've only recently recognised you
and how I've paid the price


Welcome to my world my friend,
All calculations and dread,
I'd love to sleep the whole night through
and wake without you in my head


I’m coping very well with you,
through avoidance and control,
but it only takes one extra task
and I’m in overload


Deadlines hanging over me,

My biggest source of stress

Until I’ve finished all the work

I cannot rest


Don’t talk to me about resilience,

I understand the idea,

You try seeing things as they are

When your mind is full of fear


How will my story end?

Is this how I’ll always be?

I’d like to find a way

To live more peacefully


I gather it’s not uncommon

For humans to be this way,

What is it that so drives us?

What holds us in its sway?


Maybe it’s because we’re human

With all our complexities,

What lies beneath our surface?

What is our history?


As I get to know you better

I think that you should know

You’ve been my companion long enough

It’s time for you to go


Will you e're come back again
and rob me of my ease?
It's time to let you go my friend
and live my life in peace


If you have any insights,

Pray share them with me do,

Then I can check my learning

And I’ll share back with you

(c) Ross Nichols 2018

In : Coaching 

Tags: wellbeing "mental health" neuroscience "project leadership"