Kate Sweeny, University of California Riverside – Mindfulness and the Stress of Waiting

Does waiting make you stressed?

Kate Sweeny, associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of California Riverside, looks into how to chill out while waiting for potential bad news.

Kate Sweeny is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. She received her BS (2002) from Furman University and her MS (2003) and PhD (2008) from the University of Florida, where she studied social psychology with James Shepperd, PhD. You can read about her research interests and ongoing projects elsewhere on this site. When she’s not at work, Kate is usually hanging out with her husband, rehearsing and performing with her Middle Eastern dance troupe, Sirenesque, practicing yoga, and enjoying nature by hiking or camping.

Mindfulness and the Stress of Waiting

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Many of life’s most significant and stressful events involve waiting for some kind of news. We wait for news from job interviews, college applications, professional and academic evaluations, and medical tests, among countless other examples. Most people find these experiences challenging, fraught with worry and sleepless nights—and earlier research from my lab revealed that many of the ways we try to cope with uncertainty are ineffective at best.

How can people could find some relief in these uncertain moments? The idea of mindfulness—an active focus on the present moment – could be the answer. Waiting is characterized by the worst kind of mental time travel – obsessing about the past and the future—what could I have done differently, and how might things turn out? Mindfulness seemed like the perfect antidote to these repetitive, worrisome thoughts.

To test this idea, my colleague Jennifer Howell and I ran two studies with law graduates who were awaiting their result on the California bar exam. This waiting period is particularly torturous because it lasts 4 long months and has significant consequences for the lives and careers of those who endure it. In both studies, we asked participants about their thoughts and feelings throughout the waiting period. In one of the studies, we also assessed their typical levels of mindfulness, and in the other study, we instructed some participants to do a brief mindfulness meditation each week while they waited.

In both studies, mindfulness helped people. They reported coping better with their uncertainty, and they managed their expectations more effectively, maintaining a positive outlook a bit longer than they otherwise would have. Better yet, mindfulness meditation was most helpful for those who typically find uncertainty to be most stressful. We hope our findings can provide a practical strategy for making waiting a little easier.

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