Life is chaotic; outcomes are uncertain; worrying is inevitable. In spite of knowing this intuitively, we tend to think of worrying types as ill-suited to endure the stress of living. New research suggests the opposite.
The New York Times reports on a new study published in Emotion, which found that “how people manage stress while waiting for high-stakes results is a validation of sorts for those who embrace their anxiety.” The study, which looked at 230 law school grads waiting on results from the bar exam in California over a four-month period of time, found that it’s better to freak out than to fool yourself.
Study author Kate Sweeny, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, wanted to see, basically, how these anxious souls waited—what coping mechanisms they used, and whether it was better to think positively or negatively during this time in terms of its impact on receiving the results themselves.
The waiting period of anxiety is, according to the Times, not often studied—most research in this arena apparently looks more specifically at how you handle bad life-altering news, and less about how you deal with the limbo of not knowing. While waiting for the results, Hoffman writes, “People tried to make time fly and their worries disappear: yoga and exercise, work, binge-watching television, talking with friends, not talking with friends. Drinking.”
A couple from the study, both awaiting bar exam results, each handled their anxiety differently. Mathieu Putterman preferred to keep calm and busy by caring for their dog, adopting the thinking that he could put off the bad feelings by doing anything but entertaining them. Why worry about the implications of failure, basically, if you don’t even know that you need to worry yet? His wife, Anna Evans Putterman, went the opposite route. She was fretful, telling Hoffman, “I would never say ‘I think I passed.’ What if I say it out loud and they haven’t graded my essays yet? Will someone hear?”
You might think worrying while waiting on an important result—something at this point you can’t do much about—may seem neurotic or pointless. But it’s more complicated than that. At its core, this study taps into how we define what it means to “wait well.” What do you do with yourself when you don’t know what’s going to happen?
Hoffman notes that most studies show that doing something is better than doing nothing when it comes to most worrying situations. Obviously this makes sense—the more actively you engage your mind away from a troubling situation, the less you’re going to suffer from those bad feelings. But the interesting part of the bar exam waiting study, Hoffman explains, is that this isn’t always true, and here, “almost no activity kept the waiters’ anxiety at bay over the long haul.”
There were three main approaches to dealing with four months of the hellish unknown: ignoring it, looking for a silver lining (like that you’ll “grow as a person” even if you fail), and then the third:
…hoping for the best, bracing for the worst. These people worried constructively, doing what researchers call “defensive pessimism,” or “proactive coping.” They dive into the worry maelstrom, surfacing with contingency plans.
The key difference here is very possibly the “hoping” for the best instead of “expecting” it. That may seem like a pointless distinction, but by simply still wanting to pass the exam while being prepared to fail and retake it, you can be positive about the situation without irrationally choosing to “believe” you will certainly pass. One of them is just fingers-crossed, the other is being open to the positive outcome as much as the negative one.
Basically, by setting expectations low and sorting through all the negative outcomes and how they’d react or handle them, these participants gave themselves a leg up on a preparedness grounded in reality, not wishful thinking or avoidance. And what’s more, they were happier when the outcome was positive. Hoffman writes:
When it came to how people handled the news, “The poor waiters did great,” Dr. Sweeny said. If the news was bad, the worriers were ready with productive, reasonable responses. “And if they passed, they were elated.”
But you know who wasn’t OK? Everyone who remained calm!
“Those who sailed through the waiting period were shattered and paralyzed by the bad news,” Dr. Sweeny said. “And if they got good news, they felt underwhelmed. You know, like, ‘Big whoops!’ ”
Worriers should take a minute to claim victory—the thing you’ve been getting grief for doing possibly your entire life is actually a superior mechanism in some settings.
Ignorance, as it turns out, is not always bliss.
Image via USA/The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.