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05-27 Mental fortitude presses onward despite the fog

Mental fortitude presses onward despite the fog

Florence Chadwick was born in San Diego, California, on Nov. 9, 1918, and she was an excellent swimmer. She was the first woman to swim across the Catalina Channel, Straits of Gibraltar, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. She was not the first woman to swim across the English Channel, but she was the first woman to swim across it both ways. In 1962, she was inducted by the San Diego Hall of Champions into the Breitbard Hall of Fame.

On July 4, 1952, however, Chadwick wasn’t entirely confident in her ability to cross the Catalina Channel. The weather that day was against her: The ocean was freezing cold and a thick fog made it difficult to judge her progress. After a grueling 15 hours and 55 minutes, Chadwick gave up and asked her support crew to take her out of the water.

Unbeknown to her, the coastline was less than a mile away. The fog had kept her from realizing how close she was to victory.

“Look,” she later told a reporter. “I’m not excusing myself, but if I could have seen land I know I could have made it.”

Chadwick’s story represents something that happens to all of us: uncertainty. When the solution is nowhere in sight, it’s often easier to give up than to press onward. In fact, researchers have found that not knowing whether you will succeed or fail hurts far more than failure itself.

Stress and uncertainty

Researchers at the University College London and King’s College Hospital had 45 volunteers play a computer game that involved turning over rocks. Under each rock, the participants had a risk of encountering a snake. If turning over the rock revealed a snake, they would receive a small electric shock to the hand.

Over time, the researchers changed the odds that any given rock would conceal a snake. This meant that sometimes a rock would be guaranteed to hide (or not hide) a snake, and other times it would be impossible to tell. The researchers measured stress in the participants by examining pupil dilation and perspiration as well as via self-report.

The results indicated that higher levels of uncertainty resulted in higher levels of stress. The most stressful moments, they found, were when the participants had a 50 percent chance of receiving a shock. The least stressful moments were when participants had either a 0 percent or 100 percent risk of receiving a shock.

“It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t,” explained Archy O. de Berker, the lead author. “We saw exactly the same effects in our physiological measures: people sweat more, and their pupils get bigger when they are more uncertain.”

The study marks the first time researchers have quantified the effect of uncertainty on stress.

What does this mean?

In many ways, mental illness is a fog that clouds the future, making everything ahead of you seem hopeless and — yes — uncertain. It can be tempting to give up since, after all, failure is less stressful than not knowing.

But the shoreline is closer than you think. Keep swimming. You will make it.

Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego’s mental health treatment program uses innovative, evidence-based techniques to treat adolescents who are dealing with a variety of mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental and behavioral health disorders. Mental illness poses serious difficulties for education, employment, relationships and the overall quality of a person’s life. We want to help you or your teen recover. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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