How to cope with waiting for test results

Waiting for test results can be tough, especially when a lot is at stake. But there are some powerful strategies to help you avoid getting swept up in anxious feelings about the outcome.

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Knowing how to cope with waiting for test results can be tough, especially when a lot is at stake. But there are some powerful strategies to help you avoid getting swept up in anxious feelings about the outcome.

Cast your mind back to when you were last waiting for news. Whether it was feedback from an interview letting you know whether you’d got your dream job, news about important medical results, or perhaps the grade on a career-defining exam, the chances are that the period of waiting itself is not a particularly happy memory.

“What’s really torturous is the combination of not knowing what’s coming and not being able to do much, or anything about it,” says Professor Kate Sweeny, of the University of California, who has made a study of waiting in the areas of both health and academic tests.

In the past I’ve let this kind of situation undermine my peace of mind by thinking of what I should have done better in the past, worrying about the possible outcome, and even trying to read something into the timing of the result’s arrival as I’m standing in the hallway ripping open the envelope.

It doesn’t matter whether that wait is days, weeks, or months, you’re bound to think about it at times. And let’s face it, it’s hard to avoid contemplating what will happen if you don’t get what you want.

But no matter how long the wait, maintaining your composure, and not letting uncertainty destroy your sense of calm is worth pursuing. After all, it’s not helpful to live in a state of high anxiety… whatever the eventual outcome.

So how can you ease those feelings? There are ways to learn how to cope with waiting for test results. One of the methods studied by Professor Sweeny may sound counter-intuitive, but it involves really looking at the potential bad outcome and then doing a process of “pre-emptive benefit finding”.

This is where you think about all the good that might come from getting what you would consider to be bad news on results day. And even in high-stakes situations such as women waiting for breast cancer biopsies as many as 76 percent naturally engaged in this kind of thought process in one of Professor Sweeny’s studies.

Potential positives included being a role model to others, appreciating life more, and strengthening their relationships. “It takes some of that pre-emptive sting away because you’re thinking ‘well, if I get bad news, still there’s all this good that will come from it,’” she said.

Facing it head-on in this way may not be right for everyone, and even if you cope with waiting fairly well, there may still be moments in the wee small hours when anxious thoughts take over.

“It’s a period that’s fraught with worry,” says Professor Sweeny. “Typically, people have trouble not fixating on the potential futures and sometimes even thinking about the past. Let’s say you took a big exam and you’re now worried about failing, but you’re also thinking about all the ways you might have done things differently in terms of preparation.”

This leads to what Professor Sweeny refers to as “mental time travel” where your mind is dragged backwards into regret and reproach and forwards into the what-ifs concerning getting an unwanted result.

This is probably one of the reasons why mindfulness meditation is so beneficial in the waiting scenario as it grounds you in the present moment.

“We’ve looked at mindfulness meditation or just mindfulness practice as it’s a really good match,” she said.

In one study students felt they coped better with the waiting period after taking part in a 15-minute audio-guided meditation. Even doing this just once a week had benefits.

Another method is entering a state of flow – that wonderful zone where you’re completely absorbed in what you’re doing, and time seems to fly past. For this, you need to be actively engaged in a task that is challenging but not so challenging that it causes frustration, and that also provides you with positive feedback on how you’re doing.

What gets you into flow is very individual, but activities that tend to work include hobbies, video games, writing, and creative pursuits. “It’s very helpful just to dive into something where your mind is off, essentially, for some period of time. That worry will still be waiting for you when you emerge from the game of solitaire or the engaging work, or playing with your kids or whatever it is, but at least you get a break.”

However, don’t be too hard on yourself if you find times such as these difficult, it’s part of being human. “If you think evolutionarily about how humans came to be the way we are, it’s not good for survival to not have any idea what’s coming and not have any control over your fate. So, my suspicion is that we adaptively evolved a discomfort with those states because they’re dangerous. And so, good on us for having the motivation to resolve those situations, find certainty, and get in control… but often we can’t do that, and then we’re stuck with this discomfort.”

That uncertainty is especially hard when the result you’re waiting for is about a serious health condition.

“It’s such an unknown, and the unknown is so looming and so huge in that situation because it’s so out of your control,” says Sian Robinson who is a Service Knowledge Specialist with the Cancer Information and Support Team at Macmillan Cancer Support. “There’s nothing in that situation you can control at all. You can’t make the results arrive faster,” she says.

“We advise that people do what feels best for them. If that’s keeping it all in and maybe writing it down so that they’re the only people that see that list of things that they’re concerned about then that’s fine. If it’s telling everybody what’s worrying them then that’s fine. If it’s telling a few trusted people or even a stranger on a support line, all those things are fine.”

It’s interesting to note that during a waiting period there tends to be a pattern to the discomfort people feel. Professor Sweeny found that people tend to worry most about results at the beginning and end of a waiting period – so around the time of the test itself and again when the results are about to be given.

“It’s naturally more salient at the end of a waiting period, but also, I think it’s adaptively the case that we will ramp up coping, ramp up consideration of what might happen and predicting the future in those moments. The upshot of that is we need to take better care of ourselves in those endpoint moments and if you have a good social support network, it’s a good time to engage them,” said Professor Sweeny.

Knowing this can also be helpful to friends and family of the person waiting for that result. She said: “Loved ones should be keenly aware perhaps of the moments in a waiting period that might be the most difficult, so the day of the doctor’s appointment, for example, and rather than making the person ask, just be there and do whatever might boost their mood and be more positive during that time.”

How to cope with waiting for test results? Be your own expert

Often the strategies that help people learn how to cope with waiting for test results and feel better are simple things, and people find they already know in their heart of hearts what works. At Macmillan, they often ask callers how they usually make themselves feel better in times of stress.

“Sometimes it goes back to the tried and tested things that people sometimes just overlook and they forget about in that huge panic,” says Robinson. “So, it will be things like go for a walk, do a bit of gentle exercise. If it takes your mind off it, go for a cup of tea with a friend, read a book. Those sorts of things can’t be forgotten about. They can be so powerful, and you rely on them for a reason.”

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