You have a new scan. You get a blood test. You’re waiting to hear if you will get an appointment with a new specialist. You start a new treatment. Then you wait. You wait, and wait, and wait some more. Every second that ticks past seems like an hour, and with every minute you can feel your anxiety rising. Everybody waits – maybe it’s a job interview or a college application – but for you waiting is harder because the results of these tests or treatments or appointments could mean the difference between health and struggle, or could define the possibilities of your life. How will you survive the wait?

Believe it or not, scientists have studied what makes people good (and bad…) at waiting. Kate Sweeney is a professor at the University of California at Riverside. She studied 50 law school graduates who had just taken the bar exam and were waiting to hear whether they had passed the test to be a lawyer. One thing she found is that people worried most right after the test – they couldn’t distract themselves from thinking about it. She also found that right before people got their results, they were the most pessimistic – as they were about to learn whether they had passed the test, they were most sure they had failed.

Sweeney also learned which strategies actually helped people feel less anxious while they waited. For example, distraction doesn’t work. It was as if intentionally doing something distracting, like going to a baseball game or playing a new video game, made people think more about the thing they were worrying about.

What did work was downplaying the importance of the test. People who imagined all the ways they would be okay even if they failed the test felt less anxiety while waiting. Sweeney also plans to test the strategy of mindfulness meditation. Maybe by working to focus on your self in the moment, you could stop worrying about what might happen in the future.

And there was also good news for people who just couldn’t help stressing out: People who were the most worried were also the most okay after they got the results – they were most relieved when they passed the test and most motivated to turn around and try again if they failed.

So if you’re worrying about the results of your medical test or treatment, consider trying two things. First, imagine how you could be okay even if the test doesn’t go the way you hope. And second, know that worrying is okay – it may make you better prepared for the results, good or bad.

Kristi Pikiewicz
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.