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Uncertainty is ‘at the root’ of all anxiety. A neuropsychologist explains how to master living with it

"The energy of uncertainty is at the root of all your forms of anxiety," says Dr. Julia DiGangi, author of "Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading with Emotional Power."

Dr. Julia DiGangi is a neuropsychologist, who completed her residency at Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Medicine, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Dr. DiGangi has also studied genetics, trauma, resilience and more at Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Georgetown. She has nearly two decades of experience studying the connection between our brains and our behavior.

It was early in my career when a patient of mine, Jerry, said to me, “I never knew for sure when my dad was gonna beat the shit out of me, so I’d provoke him in the morning. Better to get it out of the way.”

This was an early exposure to what I now understand to be one of the most powerful forces in our lives: uncertainty. Uncertainty is life’s promise to us all. For more than twenty years, I have watched people rise from unspeakable pain to venture again into a future that withholds all certainty. I work with people who have endured shocking traumas and, predictably, our early conversations are filled with interrogative pleas for a certain safety: “How can I be absolutely sure nothing like this will ever happen again?” they ask me.

The answer is: they cannot.

After many years, the thing that still takes my breath away is the grace and courage of people who accept this truth and say: I rise again not because I know for sure, but because I hope anyway.

The pain of uncertainty is a well-studied neuropsychological phenomenon. For example, when researchers hook people up to machines that deliver electric shocks, people report that it’s more painful to be uncertain if they may be shocked than it is to be certain they will be shocked. This tells you something important: your emotional feelings surrounding your situations of uncertainty can be, quite literally, more painful than physical pain.


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