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How to Avoid Freaking Out While You Wait for Medical News

Namrata Vansadia

If you’ve ever waited for the results of a serious medical test, then you know that no news doesn’t always feel like good news. Whether the issue is a biopsy, STD test or genetic screening, waiting for answers about your health can turn into a stressful, seemingly interminable process.

While it might be tempting to spend a waiting period staring at the clock, fretting over what-ifs, that will only make the situation worse. So how can patients cope with uncertainty when they have no choice but to wait? Psychological research offers some ideas. Here are a few simple strategies to help pass the time between a doctor’s visit and a looming diagnosis.

Find your way into “flow”

One tip might not come as much of a surprise: Distract yourself. Who hasn’t binged a Netflix show or hit the gym to avoid thinking about a fight with a partner or a stressful project at work? Initially, finding a distraction might seem like cheating somehow. But when you’re stuck in a situation you can’t control, fixating on the outcome or Googling symptoms at 3 a.m. won’t prepare you for whatever you’re going to find out.

When you’re waiting for potentially life-changing news, it’s hard not to get ahead of yourself.

Immersing yourself in an activity that fully consumes your attention can help prevent rumination, or getting stuck in a cycle of repetitive, upsetting thoughts. We’ve all let ourselves slip into rumination, but it’s a well-established way to increase anxiety. Instead, to cope with stressful waiting periods, you could pursue activities that promote flow, a mental state where you become so utterly absorbed in what you’re doing that you forget about the rest of the world. Flow-promoting activities take many forms, like exercising, playing an instrument, tackling a challenging puzzle or starting a creative project. If you can identify activities that previously put you into a flow state, try doing one to get your mind off the clock.

Get something done or do something good 

A distraction doesn’t need to be something “unproductive,” like watching TV (although there’s no shame in escapism). Consider tasks that are perennially stuck on your to-do list, like reorganizing your Dropbox. Waiting periods could also be your excuse to indulge in something you love but rarely make time for, like baking from scratch. Or take the opportunity to lend a hand. Doing good can confer mood boosts, so throwing yourself into volunteer work or doing a personal favor might lift your spirits.  

Stay in the present

Distracting yourself isn’t the only way to survive a waiting period. Kate Sweeny, a psychology researcher at the University of California, Riverside, studied law students awaiting their bar exam results for four long months. One strategy that helped the law students was mindfulness meditation, which involves focusing your attention on the present moment (e.g., by concentrating on breathing) and observing any thoughts and feelings that arise without judgment.

When you’re waiting for potentially life-changing news, it’s hard not to get ahead of yourself and start mapping out a scary, unpleasant future. Staying in the present moment through mindfulness can help you to avoid going down roads you may never need to take. Mindfulness doesn’t require buying a yoga mat or downloading the Headspace app. First try some simple but effective deep breathing exercises to help you relax and stay present.

Don’t underestimate your ability to adapt 

Evidence suggests you’ll be able to adapt regardless of what a medical test reveals, even if the agony of waiting makes it hard to imagine carrying on in the face of bad news. A vivid example comes from a study of people who became either paraplegics or quadriplegics after accidents. Study participants rated how much they enjoyed various everyday activities, like talking to friends, eating breakfast and reading magazines. They reported enjoying life just as much as people who hadn’t suffered major physical trauma — and remarkably, even as much as recent lottery winners. 

The accident victims were able to recover from tragic events and continue their lives surprisingly quickly. Other research shows that in general, people overestimate the impact that chronic illness and disability have on life satisfaction. For example, one study showed that patients with end-stage renal disease who were undergoing hemodialysis — a burdensome procedure that takes at least three hours, three times a week — did not report being any less happy than healthy non-patients.

People can focus so much on what they’d lose if they got bad health news that it’s easy to lose sight of what would stay the same.

In fact, researchers suggest that when it comes to predicting how we’ll feel in the future — what experts call affective forecasting — we forget that our future quality of life will be shaped by routine things unrelated to health problems. We’ll often be preoccupied by the minutiae, from work deadlines to leaky faucets. Many of the pastimes that bring you joy and enhance your quality of life, like going to the beach or devouring true-crime podcasts, will be unaffected by whatever your test results reveal. People can focus so much on what they’d lose if they got bad health news that it’s easy to lose sight of what would stay the same.

Lean on your people  

Some of these strategies can also be combined with social support to maximize their therapeutic potential. Having a supportive partner has been shown to help people endure uncertainty during waiting periods; spending time with a close friend or family member might provide a positive distraction. You could also join a mindfulness-based stress reduction course to meet other people using these techniques in times of crisis.

Finally, don’t overlook the tools we already have to deal with bad news. For one thing, we can replace lost sources of meaning with new ones. For another, we can build stronger emotional relationships with others. Going through an adaptation exercise, in which you list ways you might cope in the event of a distressing diagnosis, could help you regain perspective and realize just how capable we are of redefining ourselves in the face of challenges. A diagnosis does not doom you to a darker future. We can adapt to new realities, often more successfully than we anticipate, and discover what makes life fulfilling in spite of any health-related changes.

Show Comments (2)
  1. Nancy Monson

    Excellent article and topic! I get incredibly anxious about medical tests, and these tips and information are helpful. Thank you.

  2. Sheila

    I agree. I’ve been searching for an article on this topic. This is the best one. Very helpful. Thank you!

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