The uncertainty that accompanies the unknown can be a source of great anxiety and fear. However, it can also be the motivation for curiosity and exploration. The decision to choose one path or the other depends upon one’s perspective. And, within the same person, there can be conflicting feelings depending upon the situation. But, do fear/anxiety and curiosity/exploration really conflict with one another?

The unknown, and uncertainty for that matter, is no more evident than in the medical field and health. Nothing in medicine is 100%. Disease or illness outcomes, diagnostic testing, treatment modalities, and preventative measures are just some of the elements of medicine and health in which there is much unknown. As much as the medical field knows, there is so much that it doesn’t know. This unknown in medicine can be approached with anxiety and fear, curiosity and exploration, or both simultaneously.

If one approaches the unknown with anxiety and fear, consequences range from positive to negative. Sometimes, anxiety and fear can be protective mechanisms to avoid certain results. This may mean avoiding behaviors that may put one at risk for disease exposure, unnecessary medication usage, and accidental traumas. If a child learns that touching a hot stove will result in a burn or other injury, for example, fear and anxiety about the unknowns may have a positive impact, such as not touching hot surfaces and asking an adult for help. However, fear and anxiety about a taking a medication, such as one for an ear infection, may make it difficult for the child to access that medication.

Results of approaching the unknown with curiosity and exploration range from positive to negative as well. Being curious and exploring the unknown has brought a tremendous number of advances and innovations in medicine. As with anxiety and fear, curiosity and exploration are not without their risks. Unintended side effects of medications or inaccurate diagnostic testing results are just a couple examples. Nevertheless, curiosity and exploration of the unknown are necessary for the advancement of medicine.

One could argue that anxiety and fear, as well as curiosity and exploration, should coexist within every healthcare professional and patient. Each tempers the other and minimizes poor outcomes and unnecessary risk. The only measure of how they negatively or positively affect the medical field and health is how they affect the lives of those involved. The best recipe for successfully addressing the unknown and uncertainty in medicine and health is by walking the delicate balance between fear/anxiety and curiosity/exploration to glean the benefits of both sets of feelings.