Anyone familiar with waiting for news (from whether you got the job you interviewed for to what those medical test results are going to say) knows the anxiety that comes with this type of uncertainty. Even if you’re expecting good news (like literally expecting a child), the time in between—where you’ve got nothing to do but wait—can be exhausting and stressful. But there may be a better way to wait: staying in the present moment through mindfulness meditation, according to new research published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Lead researcher Kate Sweeney, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at UC Riverside, and her team designed two studies to see if law school graduates who were either naturally mindful (as measured by a commonly used scale) or who were told to listen to and practice a 15-minute guided meditation fared better while waiting for the results of the bar exam, which takes four months to process.
Sweeney has previously studied how people cope with waiting periods. She’s found that oft-used tactics to make waiting less miserable, like trying to distract oneself, adopting a cheery disposition or bracing for the worst, can actually make the waiting period more stressful. “We know from lots of research that rumination (repetitive thoughts about the past) and worry (repetitive thoughts about the future) are quite unpleasant and even harmful to our health and well-being,” she said in the study’s press release. “It’s important to seek solutions to this painful form of mental time-travel.”
The first study measured how mindful 150 graduates already were and the second study had 90 graduates practice the guided mindfulness meditation at least once a week while they waited to get their bar results. (The first group wasn’t told to actively practice mindfulness during the study.) Both groups took a variety of questionnaires during the four month waiting period, including ones that measured how well they thought they were coping with the wait, how they were their managing expectations about the results and how worried they were.
As you’d expect, everyone waiting for the results was pretty anxious. One participant in the study told researchers, “I had a nightmare where I couldn’t determine whether I had passed or failed the bar exam and I spent the entire dream trying to find out my results. I have these sort of bar exam nightmares once every couple weeks.” Another person said “I got sick, like fever flu sick, and I think it’s because my anxiety levels have slowly been building up to today!! I was constantly thinking and thinking about the results.”
The researchers found that both people who scored higher in mindfulness traits and those who practiced mindfulness meditation weekly fared better: they weren’t as worried as their less-mindful peers, they braced less for the worst case scenario and felt they were coping better with the wait.
Sweeney hypothesized one reason why mindfulness might be such a helpful intervention. Part of it has to do with staying in the moment and not thinking about the future or past, and another is that it appeared mindfulness helped postpone the “bracing” for the worst phenomenon that can accompany stressful waiting periods. While bracing can help keep your expectations in check, the study authors write, it can be bad if it happens too early in the waiting period. “People who were more mindful (Study 1) or who engaged in mindfulness meditation (Study 2) braced later,” the study authors write, and those people, on average, reported coping better overall with the wait.
“We know that meditation is a great way to reduce everyday stress, but our study is the first to see if it also makes it easier to wait for personally significant news. This study is also one of the first to identify any strategy that helps people wait better, and it also shows that even brief and infrequent meditation can be helpful,” Sweeney said in the press release.
While more research in this area is needed, these findings suggest that people in distress have at their disposal a free and easy method to cope with waiting, no matter what it is that they’re waiting for. “Meditation isn’t for everyone, but our study shows that you don’t have to be a master meditater or go to a silent meditation retreat to benefit from mindfulness,” Sweeney said in the press release. “Even 15 minutes once a week, which was the average amount of meditation practiced by our participants, was enough to ease the stress of waiting.”
Read the study’s press release here.