Go ahead. Worry about making your fourth quarter sales goals. Wring your hands over rumors that your biggest client is being acquired. And stay up late thinking about that late-paying customer who may never ante up. Turns out worrying can lead to a happier outcome in the end, according to a study from the University of California.
Researchers studied 230 law graduates who were awaiting their results on the California bar exam, checking in every two weeks during the four-month waiting period to learn whether they passed or failed. They found people handle waiting for uncertain news in one of two ways: they use coping strategies to keep their minds occupied with something else during the waiting period, or they embrace the anxiety and worry.
Participants who used coping strategies, such as yoga or TV watching, were unsuccessful at waiting well. The methods were ineffective for reducing distress associated with uncertainty, and it impacted their reaction to the news when it was delivered. If the news was bad, they were paralyzed by it; if the news was good, they were underwhelmed.
On the other hand, those who suffered through a waiting period with anxiety, rumination, and pessimism responded more productively to the news when it was delivered. If the news was bad, they were prepared with productive responses. And if they news was good, they were elated.
The findings suggest that the difficulty of enduring a stressful waiting period comes with a side benefit once the decision arrives. This is great news; I come from a long line of worriers. My Nana worried about the Chicago Bulls and Dennis Rodman (rightly so). My mother worries that there has been a horrible house fire if I don't return her voicemail right away. And I worry that my college son will oversleep and miss class.
"I think in most cases people don't have control over their worry--if they're worriers, they'll worry," says Kate Sweeny, associate professor of psychology and coauthor of the study. "My sense is that people would choose to worry less as they wait, even if it means sacrificing the benefits of worry once the news arrives."
But there is help. Sweeny says other research points to two promising strategies: mindfulness and effective distraction via flow activities.
"My lab has some findings (still under review) suggesting that law graduates who engaged in periodic and brief mindfulness meditation coped better and managed their expectations more effectively than law graduates who waited in their 'natural state' or who engaged in a different kind of meditation," she says. "Other researchers have found that the best way to distract oneself is to find 'flow activities' -- activities that are challenging, that are actively engaging, and that make time fly by. Each person has different activities that put them in a flow state, but we suspect that these individualized activities are far better for getting through a waiting period than passive activities like watching TV or taking a relaxing bath."
While you can lessen the stress, worrying is a universal experience, and the more people worry, the more they try to distract themselves, says Sweeny. "Some people are certainly better at waiting than others (we have earlier work on that topic), but I have yet to find a person who doesn't worry at all, particularly when the outcome is personally significant."