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5 Ways to Manage the Waiting Game

How we wait can make all the difference.

Posted Nov 04, 2020

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I think it’s safe to say that we all know what the feeling of waiting for an outcome feels like, and it can be quite uncomfortable. Whether we’re waiting for test results, election results, or if there will be a next date, the feelings that waiting induces can often be excruciating.

There are certainly important differences in these varying wait-able scenarios, including the degree of control we have over the outcome and what else is going on in our lives at the moment. Nonetheless, regardless of the specifics, waiting carries with it a host of difficult feelings such as uncertainty, anxiety, worry, and impatience. Waiting for possible good news or bad news can feel draining and exhausting, as we sit in the space of not knowing.

Why is having to wait for news so difficult?

One reason why waiting can be so hard is that often the outcome of whatever we are waiting for determines our next steps. If we get the answers we are hoping for we celebrate and keep moving forward. If we receive news that is unwelcome and not what we had wanted, we process the loss and disappointment and reroute.

With knowing comes the possibility of movement. And with not knowing, we feel stuck- as if life is on pause. In fact, in one study, participants displayed higher levels of anxiety while waiting for a result than after they received the bad news. It’s similar to the game of Life: While we keep on rolling, we’re either moving forwards or backward. Regardless of the direction, we’re moving. When we can’t roll, we don’t know what our next steps should be. We are stuck on our square until we find out how many spaces we should go and where we are going—even if where we are going is in the opposite direction of where we wanted to go.

Thus, having to wait is hard for practical reasons. Often there are changes we need to make depending on the outcome: Will I need to apply for another job or school? Take the test again? Have to move? Begin medical treatment? Start over in some capacity? Our life hangs in limbo in many ways whilst we wait.

Waiting is also hard because people crave certainty. The need to know is adaptive and built into our drive to survive. It’s part of our more primitive wiring. If we know what to expect, we can adequately prepare for it, and most likely get by okay. If we are uncertain about what’s to come, we are less likely to thrive, let alone survive. So wanting certainty is built into our blood and bones.

A bit of self-disclosure here: Both my husband and I have degrees in which we have to complete national and state licensing exams before we can practice. I studied for months before my exam, was filled with anxiety and trepidation before I went to take it, and had to wait a couple of weeks before I found out if I passed it or not. (I did!) My husband, on the other hand, spent months preparing for his exam which was spread over two days and then had to wait four months for his results. The months after he took his exam were difficult for many reasons: the emotional toll of not knowing if he would have to go through that draining experience again, as well as several practical uncertainties: Would we be able to move? Would he be able to find a job? And all the financial considerations that came along with that.

We both had to wait. My wait was much shorter, and, hence, less tolling. His was longer and therefore decidedly more uncomfortable — for the both of us.

With all this said, how can we wait with equanimity? As it is an inevitability of life—a part of the equation of living and pursuing goals—what are some things we may want to try doing when we find ourselves in the uncomfortable realm of waiting on someone (or something) else’s timeline? How can we play the waiting game without it taking too much of an emotional toll?

1. Meditate. Finding a form of meditation that speaks to you can be helpful in offsetting the stress of not knowing. In one study, researchers found evidence that mindfulness, including mindfulness meditation, was helpful in abating the stress of waiting. Researchers looked at law students in California who were awaiting the results of the bar exam. This process can be incredibly stressful and includes a four-month waiting period after the test to find out if you passed. Students who indicated a relatively strong tendency toward mindfulness showed less “bracing”—preparing themselves for the worst-case scenario—and displayed more optimism. Increased optimism while we are waiting for important news can decrease our stress.

2. Do things that induce your flow experience. Activities that are immersive and require your complete focus help you achieve a flow state. Being in your flow can be calming, grounding, and rewarding. It also helps us remember that life goes on, even as we wait. There is food to cook, essays to write, and art to make. The waiting is there, and so are these other powerful experiences that remind us that there is more to life than the news we are waiting on. Getting lost in an immersive experience can be helpful in retaining this awareness and do wonders to shift your mind out of the worry of what will be.

3. Create awe-inducing experiences. In a study at the University of California, researchers discovered that participants exposed to an awe-inspiring video (a high-resolution video of a sunset) were significantly better able to tolerate the uncertainty of waiting for test results than participants who watched either a neutral video or a cute video of animals. These researchers concluded that inducing the feeling of awe can help us when we find ourselves waiting. How can you translate this into your life? Maybe it’s going for a walk at sunset, or taking a close look at all the details in just one leaf, or reflecting on how miraculous it is that our bodies work just-so?

There is the capacity to find awe all around us. I often find it in nature. Even just watching a giant old tree dance in the wind can trigger feelings of awe.

4. Limit how often you check your phone or email for an answer. Constant checking is draining, and when we fall into habitual checking, it becomes a vicious cycle of checking, disappointment, and more checking, as every time we check holds the promise of some news. Check your email on a schedule. Set boundaries around where you check. One idea might be to only check your email on your computer, not your phone. Setting such a limit can be a helpful fence in limiting the number of times you check.

5. Make a list of affirmations. Jot down some words that help with increasing hope and a belief in a positive outcome. Say them out loud, then record yourself saying them, and watch your video as a reminder. This can help hedge off worry and keep you feeling optimistic. A personal favorite of mine is “Good things are coming my way.” This affirmation is equal parts hopeful and vague…while I’m not entirely sure what that good thing is, I know it’s coming. And there is a truth to that. After all, good things are always coming our way…if only we’re ready and open to seeing them. It might not be in the outcome I thought, but good things are always finding us, if only we are looking.

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