Research Shows How To Turn Your Anxiety Into Something More Beneficial

By tapping into your curiosity, you can turn the anxiety of uncertainty into a compelling challenge.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 13, 2023

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality explains how curiosity can help alleviate feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.

"I was inspired to do this study because I was interested in the fact that curiosity is, at the same time, a love of the unknown (liking mysteries and questions) but also an intolerance of the unknown (because you don't want to leave the mystery unsolved – you want the answer)," explains psychologist William Whitecross of the Australian National University and lead author of the paper.

When focusing on the unpleasant feelings of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, we often forget to give curiosity its due credit, according to Whitecross. He claims that curiosity is special.

"A curious response entails wanting to learn and understand the unknown, and counteracts our impulses to avoid, fear, judge, and attack what we don't understand," he explains. "Curiosity also gives us the confidence to embrace new things in order to learn and grow."

Whitecross splits curiosity into two distinct categories:

  1. Interest-curiosity is a desire to learn targeted at deriving enjoyment and pleasure. It may be likened to wonder, fascination, or intrigue.
  2. Deprivation-curiosity is in many ways contrary to interest. Here, the desire to learn focuses more on reducing negative feelings that stem from ignorance and incomprehension. Whitecross describes the feeling of deprivation-curiosity as the annoyance you feel when you can't answer a question and you keep feeling like the information is on the tip of your tongue.

Through an online survey, Whitecross and his team recorded participants' levels of curiosity and perceptions towards uncertainty. The study produced two critical findings:

  1. People high on interest-curiosity held more positive attitudes about uncertainty. They tended to enjoy the feeling of uncertainty as compared to others and approached uncertain situations with a sense of optimism.
  2. People high on deprivation-curiosity seemed to be more uncomfortable with uncertainty. They did not enjoy the feeling of not knowing something and focused more on negative possibilities.

"Although interest and deprivation are both forces of curiosity, they appear to work in very different ways," clarifies Whitecross. "Interest is linked to enjoying uncertainty and focusing on potential positive discoveries, while deprivation is linked to disliking uncertainty and focusing on potential negative discoveries."

Despite their respective positive and negative connotations, Whitecross maintains that neither form of curiosity is 'better' or 'more important' than the other.

"Our findings show that interest is related to more optimistic thinking whereas deprivation is related to pessimistic thinking, both of which can be beneficial in different circumstances," he adds. "For example, other research suggests that interest is more strongly related to creative thinking whereas deprivation is more strongly related to persevering with a problem for a long time."

Whitecross urges those of us susceptible to anxiety to try harder to tap into our curiosity, more specifically our interest-curiosity. According to Whitecross, curiosity has the power to turn uncertainty from a scary experience to a fun problem by doing two things:

  1. Embracing and enjoying the feeling of not knowing
  2. Kindling optimism and positive speculation

"For example, if you are feeling anxious about an upcoming exam, try to think about what you are excited to learn while studying, or try to think of the essay question as a puzzle or game so you can enjoy figuring out the answer to it rather than worry you haven't figured out the answer yet," he says.

A full interview with Dr. Whitecross discussing his new research can be found here: Here's why curious people might live with less fear