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Waiting Totally Sucks. Here's How to Do It Better

Cue Jeopardy music.

Waiting. We've all done it, and pretty much all of us hate it. Can science help us do it better?

Sadly, when it comes to waiting in line at Disney Land, McDonalds, or the DMV, you're at the mercy of the machine. All you can really do is think of sunny, sandy beaches and steer clear of anothing potentially antagonizing.

But when it comes to another ubiquitous form of waiting, anticipating uncertain news or outcomes, Kate Sweeny has you covered. Waiting on information regarding your health, relationships, professional prospects, or academic outcomes can be torturous. Sweeny wants to alleviate the agony.

An assistant professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside, Sweeny has extensively explored the psychology of waiting, with a specific goal of minimizing any associated stress and anxiety. In 2012, she developed a model of "uncertainty navigation" to depict the process people go through during difficult waiting periods and to help them healthily soldier through it. Her strategy can be broken down to three broad categories: mitigating consequences, reappraising the outcome, and regulating emotions.

Sweeny is currently testing her Uncertainty Navigation Model in two longitudinal studies. "Study 1 will examine the experiences of people taking the California bar exam during the several months while they await their exam results, and Study 2 will examine the experiences of students in an upper-division psychology course over the several days while they await their midterm exam grades," she explained.

As we wait for those results, we can all benefit from five tips she offered up on how to wait well:

1. Distract yourself from uncertainty. Read an enthralling book, watch a captivating movie, play a video game that transports you to another realm. In essence, find ways to minimize your anxiety in ways that are totally irrelevant to the situation.

2. Manage your expectations. There are two ways to do this: brace for the worst or hope for the best, and both have their merits. Yes, the former is basically adopting a pessimistic outlook, but it also means you may not be disappointed if the news is sour. On the other hand, hope offers tangible, immediate benefits. According to Sweeny, "research supports a number of benefits of maintaining hope under difficult circumstances, such as better adjustment to breast cancer, reduced risk for of hypertension, increased immune functioning, and faster recovery from illness."

3. Look for the silver lining in all outcomes. It may surprise you to know that people with chronic and deteriorating diseases do not often report worse quality of life compared to their healthy counterparts. Expectation plays a huge role in life satisfaction, so generally, when people come to terms with their new predicament, they're able to redefine their personal measures of happiness. Therefore, while waiting for potentially bad news, you can take solace in knowing that, though your life might have to change, you'll still be just as happy. "People who find potential benefit in possible bad news will likely respond with less distress should the negative outcome actually occur," Sweeney says.

4. Keep perspective regarding the news. Consult with friends, family, and experts to ascertain the ramifications of potentially bad news. Evaluate how important the moment truly is in the grand scheme of things.

5. Plan ahead for the consequences of bad news. Take steps to make your life easier should the disastrous outcome you're dreading actually come to pass. For example, if you're waiting on news from the doctor about whether or not surgery is required for some malady or injury, contact your employer to secure time off from work. Or, say you're waiting for the results of a consequential exam. Start planning and taking actions to improve your score on your next potential exam. Design new study habits, or begin searching for tutors. Sweeny hypothesizes that these costs and efforts are worthwhile. "Consequence mitigation serves not only to prepare for the future, but also to manage anxiety in the present."

(Images: Shutterstock, Sweeny & Cavanaugh)