By Kate Sweeney, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside
Coping with the Stress of Uncertainty
Many of life’s most significant and stressful events involve waiting for some kind of news. We wait for news from job interviews, college applications, professional and academic evaluations, and medical tests, among countless other examples. Most people find these experiences challenging, fraught with worry and sleepless nights. Unfortunately, earlier research from my lab revealed that many of the ways we try to cope with uncertainty are ineffective at best. In fact, many of the coping strategies people use in these moments (suppressing their feelings, bracing for the worst, trying to plan ahead) can actually backfire, making people feel worse rather than better. It seems that trying to cope with the stress of uncertainty often serves to keep the uncertainty at the front of our mind.
Even Distractions are Difficult to Maintain
Perhaps, then, the best option is to seek distractions to keep our mind off our uncertainty and make the waiting period pass faster. In fact, some new research from my lab suggests that becoming fully absorbed in an activity, maybe a hobby or even work, makes waiting a little easier. However, we also found that people had trouble entering this state of “flow” at the most difficult moments of a waiting period—particularly at the moment of truth, just before the news was revealed. So distraction is good, but it is difficult to achieve when you need it most.
Mindfulness Prevents Mental Time Travel
So how can people find some relief in these uncertain moments? The idea of mindfulness—an active focus on the present moment—could be the answer. Waiting is characterized by the worst kind of mental time travel, obsessing about the past and the future. What could I have done differently? How might things turn out? Mindfulness seemed like the perfect antidote to these repetitive, worrisome thoughts. Mindfulness is also a great option when distraction fails; if you can’t take your mind off your worry, you might as well learn to coexist with it a little more comfortably.
Research Proved Mindfulness Helps with Uncertainty
To test this idea, my colleague Jennifer Howell and I ran two studies with law graduates who were awaiting their result on the California bar exam. This waiting period is particularly torturous because it lasts 4 long months and has significant consequences for the lives and careers of those who endure it. In both studies, we asked participants about their thoughts and feelings throughout the waiting period. In one of the studies, we also assessed their typical levels of mindfulness, and in the other study, we instructed some participants to do a brief mindfulness meditation each week while they waited.
In both studies, mindfulness helped people. They reported coping better with their uncertainty, and they managed their expectations more effectively, maintaining a positive outlook a bit longer than they otherwise would have. Better yet, mindfulness meditation was most helpful for those who typically find uncertainty to be most stressful. Perhaps the best news of all is that these benefits didn’t require extensive training or years of meditation practice. Very few people in our study had experience with meditation, and the task we gave them was to listen to a simple 15-minute audio-recording to guide their meditation practice. According to our participants, they only practiced meditation once a week on average (and realistically, they were probably exaggerating their compliance to make us feel better)—so even very brief, infrequent meditation might be enough to provide some comfort during stressful waiting periods.