If you’ve ever waited, and perhaps are now currently waiting, to hear whether or not you’ve tested positive for a disease, passed medical boards, or got the job you interviewed for, you know that this period of uncertainty can be filled with tension and anxiety.
My guest today — Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology — has studied the dynamics of this human experience and how we can best deal with it. We first discuss why the stress of waiting for uncertain news feels particularly uncomfortable and what types of people are more likely to worry while waiting. Kate then shares tactics that can help alleviate some of the worry of waiting, including leaning into being a pessimist as you approach the moment of truth and finding flow, even by doing something like playing Tetris. She also explains at what point the social support for people who are waiting for news tends to wane, so you can better support those around you who are currently stuck in this state of mind-burdening limbo.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Article: 5 Tools for Thriving in Uncertainty
- AoM Article: The Best Books to Read in Uncertain Times
- AoM Podcast #287: The New Frontier of Flow
- AoM Article: The One Question NOT to Ask for Healthy Introspection (And What to Ask Instead)
- AoM Article: The Right and Wrong Way to Journal
Connect with Kate Sweeny
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art Manliness Podcast. If you’ve ever waited and perhaps are now currently waiting to hear whether or not you’ve tested positive for a disease, past medical boards or got the job you interviewed for, you know that this period of uncertainty can be filled with tension and anxiety. My guest today, Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology, has studied the dynamics of this human experience and how we can best deal with it. We first discussed why the stress of waiting for uncertain news feels particularly uncomfortable and what types of people are more likely to worry while waiting. Kate then shares tactics that can help alleviate some of the worry of waiting, including leaning into being a pessimist as you approach the moment of truth and finding flow, even by doing something like playing Tetris. She also explains at what point the social support for people who are waiting for news tends to wane so you can better support those around you who are currently stuck in the state of mind burdening limbo. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/waiting.
Alright, Kate Sweeny. Welcome to the show.
Kate Sweeny: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you’re a professor of psychology who has spent her career researching about waiting for uncertain news. How did you end up researching that topic?
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, so there’s two parts to the story. In part, the answer is that I found a great professor to work with in grad school, and he was interested in expectations and waiting, and so I kind of got my start that way. But I really dove into this topic after I finished graduate school, had gone on the job market and had a pretty difficult waiting experience trying to find a job, and so when I got to my new job here in California and I thought, “What do I wanna research now?” That was fresh in my mind, and so [chuckle] the light trauma of the academic job market was really an inspiration for a lot of my work.
Brett McKay: So when you’re researching waiting for uncertain news, what are the common types of waiting experiences you encountered in your research? So you mentioned a personal one there, applying for a job and trying to figure out, “Well, am I gonna get the job? I’m not gonna get the job.” What are some of the common waiting experiences you encounter?
Kate Sweeny: There are tons of waiting experiences in our lives, so actually the hard thing as a researcher is to find ones that you can see, that people are going through and be able to research these experiences as they’re happening. We’ve done that in lots of different ways. We have actually studied academics on the job market, so me and my collaborators did a self-study on that one. But we’ve also looked at the experience of women undergoing a biopsy, women waiting to find out if they have breast cancer, so that’s on the high stakes end of things, we have asked questions of voters waiting for election outcomes and students waiting for paper grades. Pretty much any time we find a waiting period that we can study, we study it. We’ve also done a lot of work with people taking the bar exam in California to see if they can become lawyers.
Brett McKay: Yeah, no. So in law school, the worst part for me was waiting for my grades to get back after exam. So you take the exam and then it’d be like three weeks before you get your grade back. But during that time, you start doing… I’d start doing this post-mortem in my head like, “Oh my gosh, I missed that issue, I missed that thing,” and then you start texting your friends and you’re like, “Did you see that issue?” And then, “Did I miss that one?” It’s just awful. You feel terrible.
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, that kind of co-rumination doesn’t usually make anyone feel much better. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: So why does the stress of waiting feel so awful? How is it different from other types of stress?
Kate Sweeny: That’s really the question that kind of captivated me at the start of this research project or program, even at this point. I’ve always suspected that this was a very different kind of stress, the waiting stress, from other kinds of stressors where you kind of know what you’re dealing with. It might not be any fun at all, but at least you kind of know what’s in front of you. You can take some action. The kind of paralysis that waiting entails seems to really uniquely bother us. And although it’s a little bit hard to nail down exactly why that is, my best guess is that we as humans have evolved to be very uncomfortable with uncertainty because it’s good for us to try to resolve it. So if there’s something we don’t know, it’s good to be bothered by that so you go and find the answer. The problem is, in the kinds of waiting periods I study, you don’t have control over that information. You can’t go get the answer, and so your mind is working against you there where it’s trying to say, “Solve this, figure this out,” and you can’t do it, and so you’re just kind of stuck in that experience.
Brett McKay: So in your research, when you’re studying people waiting, so in the example, women waiting for the results of a breast biopsy, so this is potentially, you might have cancer. Do these women… Do they experience more stress waiting for the news than actually getting the news itself?
Kate Sweeny: Lots of women say that that’s the case. So there have been studies done by other researchers where they have asked women at the end of a breast cancer journey, “What was the hardest part?” And as a group of people at this point who’ve gone through the horror of that diagnosis, the treatment, the fear of recurrence, all of that is present, and yet many, many women, about half, in a lot of these studies say that the hardest part was the not knowing, it was the pre-diagnosis period. So it does seem to be the case that there is kind of a reality to the waiting is the hardest part. It’s not great to find out you have cancer, but at least you can start acting, and that seems to provide us some reassurance.
Brett McKay: Alright, so the reason why stress might be different or feel worse when you’re waiting for uncertain news is we just don’t like uncertain news. Humans don’t like uncertainty. Some other things you might experience when you’re waiting for news is time seems to slow down, at least it’s been my experience. When you’re waiting for some answer, time just seems to drag on. Is that something that you found in your research? And do you know why? Like what’s going on there? What does it happen so regularly?
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, that absolutely is part of the waiting experience for most people, if the waiting is stressful for them, time just seems to crawl along, and the reason for that is very likely that any time we’re feeling something unpleasant, experiencing something unpleasant, time seems to slow down. So there’s different theories for why this exactly happens. It’s not quite a resolved question yet, but essentially it’s very well-established that if you’re not having any fun, time is slow and time flies when you are having fun. So to the extent that waiting is unfun, time definitely seems to go slowly, and of course, when you’re waiting, time is essentially the enemy you’re fighting against. You want it to speed up so you can get to that answer, and so really that provides the special form of torture that then it also seems like you’re just never getting to that resolution point.
Brett McKay: So often when you’re waiting for uncertain news, you don’t know what the answer is gonna be, but you do know when you’re gonna get the answer. So let’s say you take a test at school, you know you’re gonna get your answer, your grade on Friday. But then there’s other situations where you don’t know, like you’re uncertain about the timing of the answer. Not only do you not know what the answer is, you don’t know when you’re gonna get an answer. Have you done any research on that, the uncertainty about timing?
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, we have, actually. So we did a study once, we asked people who were waiting for some kind of medical test result, it was all over the map, what kinds of results they were waiting for. Mostly pretty routine results, you know, routine kinds of tests, And about half of them said that they would rather wait longer, but know when they’re going to find out, so, “We’re gonna call you on Friday at 3:00,” versus, “We’ll call you when the results are in.” And that… Yeah, exactly as you said, it’s not terribly surprising because you’re basically layering uncertainties on top of each other when you also don’t know when that call’s coming in. Every time your phone rings, it could be the doctor with bad news versus being able to put the call out of your mind, put the uncertainty out of your mind until that time comes that you know you’ll be resolving the uncertainty, and in that particular study, interestingly about 95% of them said, “Yeah, I don’t know when the news is coming,” so the health care system seems to not appreciate this extra layer of stress that they’re creating for their patients.
Brett McKay: And what’s interesting about this uncertainty and waiting for results is that even when one uncertainty is resolved, let’s say like a cancer diagnosis, so you now know you have cancer, but then just a new uncertainty begins. So you know you have cancer, you know what you need start doing, but then there’s an uncertainty about, “Is this treatment gonna work? How long is this gonna take?” So it’s like uncertainty begets uncertainty.
Kate Sweeny: It does. And really, at any given time in our lives, we are all uncertain about lots of things in the future, so really what I end up studying are the uncertainties that are really front and center. So in a, let’s say, a journey of fighting cancer, there’s lots of points at which you might feel like you’re doing a lot of acting, a lot of doing, you’re actively getting treatment, you’re going to doctor’s appointments, there’s lots of things that you’re doing to try to get better, and that might feel less uncertain because you’re more in control of your fate, at least it feels that way at the time. But then let’s say you have a follow-up to make sure that the cancer is gone and now you’re waiting for that result, suddenly that waiting comes to the fore again. So those sorts of long-term, especially health experiences, or situation with a precarious employment situation is another one where the uncertainties just keep coming, and sometimes they’re more at front of the mind and sometimes less, but they’re never really gone.
Brett McKay: So I’ve known people who, when they have uncertainty in their life, they just seem… They’re unflappable. They just go along with their life, they say, “Oh whatever. I’ll find out when I find out. I’ll deal with it when I have to deal with it.” Unfortunately, I am the opposite of that. [chuckle] So I’m curious, are there some people… I mean, have you found this in your research, are there some people who are more susceptible to worrying while waiting for uncertain news?
Kate Sweeny: Certainly, and in fact, I take some inspiration from my parents here. My dad is of that lucky kind who just really doesn’t think about it until it’s over. It’s a little more stressful, he’s confessed, when it’s someone he loves who’s going through some kind of difficulty, that’s creating uncertainty, but for himself, he says, “You know, I just don’t think about it until I have to.” I am not like that. I did not get that from him. [chuckle] I’m more like my mom. We are both warriors. And there are lots of characteristics that might promote worry or prevent worry when you’re waiting. There’s personality traits, so people who are, for example, high in the trait we call neuroticism, they experience… I should say we. [chuckle] People who are high in neuroticism, we experience negative emotions and lots of stressful situations. Waiting is not easy for people who are high in neuroticism either. People who are more optimistic, so kind of dispositionally, naturally excited about the future, thinks the best will happen, even if the best doesn’t happen, it probably will be okay, anyway, those sorts of cheerful folks do better as well.
And then we’ve done a few studies actually looking kind of at demographic characteristics. I realized at one point that I’d been studying waiting for so long, that I had 20 plus studies with all the same measures of waiting and worry and coping and also a lot of demographic characteristics. And so we have one paper, for example, that puts those all together on average. And of course, there’s lots of overlap, but in every single study, women reported higher worry than men. And I wanna be really careful about saying reported because I don’t know if they were more worried or if women are just sort of told our whole lives that it’s okay to talk about it when we’re worried, but certainly, they were more forthcoming about their worry in our studies.
Brett McKay: So you also did some research about religiosity and worrying while waiting. What does that say?
Kate Sweeny: That is a surprising one, and I haven’t quite worked it out yet, so I’m interested [chuckle] to know what your listeners might think. We found across, I think maybe about 10 or 12 studies in that case, that people who reported being more religious and having a more committed religious faith and religious practice actually are more worried on average in our studies quite consistently. It’s not a big difference, but it’s a very consistent difference across lots of different kinds of waiting periods compared to those who say that they’re less religious. And we looked at that question in lots of different ways, we tried lots of different measures of religious beliefs and behaviors, we asked people how spiritual they were to kind of get away from that structure of religion, and no matter how we cut it, it seems like religious people worry more, or again, at least tell us in our studies that they worry more. I really don’t know what’s going on there, it’s not what we expected, but it’s an interesting finding.
Brett McKay: So our tendency is to worry when we don’t have all the information, but that worrying, even though it feels uncomfortable and not great, you’ve done some research, there can be some benefits to worrying while waiting. So what are those benefits?
Kate Sweeny: Worry, yeah, is actually really helpful to us. We would probably die much quicker if we didn’t have worry. I come from a tradition of research around emotions that is called functionalism, and that approach basically says that feeling is for doing. I’m cribbing someone’s quote there, but it’s a useful way of thinking about emotions such that basically humans have lots of different emotions, we can identify hundreds of feelings, states and emotions. And the reason that we have such a rich emotional experience in our lives, this theory goes, is because different emotions have different kind of jobs to do for us. They motivate us to do things that, more often than not, keep us alive, keep us thriving.
Worry is no exception. It’s very unpleasant, but because it’s unpleasant, it’s very motivating, and what worry tends to do is it draws your attention towards some potential looming threats in your future, it holds your attention there in ways that are very unpleasant and that keep you from sleeping well and focusing on other things, but nonetheless, it’s good if you need to take some action to prevent a bad outcome, and it motivates you to then do that. And so that’s great, if the thing you’re worried about is getting in a car accident and you can drive more carefully and wear your seat belt. Now your worry has done its job. It’s not so useful when what you’re worried about is a cancer diagnosis coming next week or failing the bar exam. There’s really very little you can do about those things in the kinds of periods I study, and so suddenly that worry doesn’t have a job to do, and I think that’s part of why waiting is so difficult for most of us.
Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s why worrying feels so terrible in my experience, ’cause it just feels like there’s nothing you can do. It feels like you can’t make the answer come any sooner or do anything to fix the problem, so you just end up feeling anxious and bad.
Kate Sweeny: That’s usually right. When people ask how do I deal with worry in these really difficult moments, I typically recommend a two-part process. One is run the checklist. Is there anything you could be doing to secure a better outcome, ideally, or if that’s not in your hands at that point, at least maybe to kind of get your ducks in a row so that if the bad news does come, if you have cancer, if you fail the exam, that you’re kind of ready for it and you might be able to respond more effectively. Even though that’s not really changing the outcome, it still does tend to provide people with a sense of reassurance. And if you’ve run that whole checklist and there’s nothing left to do, then you’re really just [chuckle] left with the option to try to worry less, which of course, is easier said than done.
Brett McKay: Well, I wanna dig more into how we can alleviate the worry while waiting. So you mentioned one tactic is we can just make a check list of things you can do to have all your ducks in a row, but another one you have done research on is called preemptive benefit finding. What is that, and how can it help alleviate worry while waiting?
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, that’s a really clunky term we’ve come up with. We’re looking for something zippier, but [chuckle] we haven’t found it yet. Preemptive benefit finding, we call it that because it’s kind of a name check on something else that we know about as psychology researchers, and that is post-traumatic benefit finding. So just speaking about that for a moment, when we talk about benefit finding in a post-traumatic context, basically we’re saying when something bad happens, you can sometimes find silver linings in that bad outcome, you can think about how, maybe at the very least, it makes you appreciate life more, or you’ve learned something, maybe you don’t make the same mistake next time, and we know that’s pretty beneficial in most cases to help cope with something bad that has happened. I wondered, because I study waiting, if maybe that process doesn’t actually just start when the bad news comes, but maybe we actually can and maybe do very readily start thinking about those benefits in advance, kind of lining up our silver linings in advance.
And yeah, we’ve done some research showing, first of all, that it happens very readily, even in really difficult circumstances. So for example, with the women that we interviewed at a biopsy appointment, we asked them the question, “Do you think there’s any good that might come from it, any silver lining, if you find out that you need to get treatment,” which is kind of code in our interview if you find out you have cancer. And I’ve asked people what percentage of our participants they thought would say yes to that question in that moment, in that scary period when they’re getting the biopsy. My mom, for example, who has now survived cancer twice, she said, “I don’t know. 1%, maybe.” Who on earth would say that? In fact, it was about 75% of our participants who said, “Yeah, if I have cancer, I’ll become healthier, I’ll be a role model for my daughters, I’ll show people that they need to get screened.” They had are lots of different ways of articulating those benefits, and then we have other researches we didn’t get to follow up with them after their diagnosis, but other studies we did follow up with folks after bad news and it does seem like kind of lining up those silver linings does make that news a bit easier to get.
Brett McKay: Okay, so just to clarify here, the finding the silver lining, this isn’t being overly optimistic, you’re not saying, “Well, you know, maybe things will just be awesome and it won’t be as bad as I think it’ll be.” What you’re doing is you’re assuming, “I’m gonna get the bad news, I’m gonna get the news I don’t want, but I’m gonna look for the good that could come out of that bad news.” Is that what we’re doing here?
Kate Sweeny: That’s exactly right, yeah, and that’s a really important distinction. I’ve also studied how we manage our expectations for our outcomes, and we can certainly talk about that, but preemptive benefit finding, in some ways, it’s kind of a scary prospect. It’s really coming face to face with the possibility that you will get bad news. And again, in some of the cases I study, that’s really bad news. But it’s kind of confronting that possibility with a little bit of armor on because you’re… Or you’re kind of building the armor, I guess, as you’re confronting it because you’re thinking about, “Okay, let’s say I fail this exam, let’s say I have cancer, that’s bad, but what good might come from it? Will I learn something from this? Will I have a new perspective on life? Will I change my behavior?” And so you’re exactly right. You’re not assuming the best, but you’re kind of finding some good in the worst.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about your research on expectation setting that we do when we’re in that uncertain period. So what does your research say there? How do we typically try to manage our expectations for ourselves when we are facing uncertainty?
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, expectation management was kind of my first love in research. In fact, I went to grad school to study with someone named James Shepperd, and he had been doing work just for a few years at that point on something that we called bracing for the worst. This is basically our tendency as humans to become pessimistic as we approach some moment of truth. When we’ll find out some outcome will resolve some uncertainty, humans tend to be, in general, very optimistic, and that’s a really healthy tendency for the most part, but he had shown this very reliable tendency for people to just suddenly become abject pessimists when they were moments from receiving an exam grade, for example, in a classroom. And so I went to school to study that and did for a long time. I still research that question a bit. And what I can say over 20 years now of studying that question is that basically everyone does this almost all the time. In fact, even folks who are really dispositionally, naturally optimistic, they do have higher expectations, they are more optimistic about their outcomes, but they are just as likely to forego that optimism as they approach that moment of truth as someone who is pessimistic all the time.
And what we think is true about racing is that it’s really helpful, so what I tend to advise for people who are waiting is that you hold on to optimism as long as you can, but not all the way up until you get the news, it’s really a good bargain to make with yourself to brace for bad news to assume the worst at least at that moment of truth, whether that’s minutes or days or even weeks in some cases, to prepare yourself for that possibility so that it’s not such a shock when you get the news, if you’ve ever gotten bad news that you really didn’t see coming, bad news is bad news, but it sure feels a lot worse when it knocks you out and you didn’t have time to prepare, so bracing seems to be good for that as long as you don’t embrace pessimism for too long, which can be really taxing on your well-being.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna say a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. Okay, so do some bracing you gotta be a realistic optimist, do the preemptive benefit finding, so you just assume the bad. Assume I failed the test, I didn’t get the job. What are the benefits that could potentially come out of that, and that could help reduce some of that worrying that you might experience while waiting, you also have done research on how seeking moments of awe can alleviate worrying while waiting. What’s going on there?
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, that was an interesting one. I had a graduate student, Sarah Andrews, who got really interested in positive psychology generally, and awe was and still is a really big area of research, a hot area in our field, and so she was interested in this question of whether awe might be either uniquely suited to periods of uncertainty, awe is a funky, it’s a funky emotion. It’s not quite positive because there’s often a bit of fear that goes along with it, if you think of standing at the Grand Canyon or staring out into space and we imagining how small we are, that feeling of being small in the face of something big is good-ish, but also makes us uncomfortable, it’s the whole thing about awe is that discomfort that need to adjust our perspective, and so there’s uncertainty baked into that in some sense, uncertainty about our place in the world, for example. And so she thought maybe that would be a really good or maybe very poor fit for these moments of uncertainty and waiting. And so she did her dissertation on that topic and found that in fact, a dose of awe, even a pretty small one, just watching an awe inspiring nature video in the lab as you wait for some news does seem to improve the experience.
I don’t think it really counteracts worry particularly, and our data didn’t show that, but it just gives you a boost of this powerful all-encompassing positive-ish emotion, and then that seems to be a benefit in those difficult moments.
Brett McKay: Well, it’s interesting that awe can help, but that religious people tend to worry more because you think in theory, religious people would have more awe like experiences, they’re doing things that’s conducive to awe, so like prayer, meditation, etcetera, but they still worry more. I think that’s interesting.
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, I know you’re right, this is why that religiosity finding is so perplexing to me. I thought there were lots of reasons why people who were more religious, again, having a sort of personal spiritual practice and or having a connection to a community, a community of faith that they would be better off, but it doesn’t seem that way. It is the case that the people who were religious in our studies did tend to cope in ways that I would think are positive. So for example, I think in literally every study, more religious people were more likely to engage in benefit finding, I don’t think that actually made it into the paper in the end, but that’s a sneak preview of some other work we’ve looked at. So there’s some good coping strategies that seem to be helpful, but again, it just didn’t quite crack through to those reports of worries. That’s definitely an open question still.
Brett McKay: Some other research you’ve done is how flow, flow states can help reduce or maybe help mitigate the feeling of worrying while waiting. So let’s start off, what is flow and then what does your research say about flows ability to help during those periods of waiting for uncertain news?
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, I got obsessed with flow, I’m still a little bit obsessed with it for the last few years, I’ll just step back a little bit and say that the reason why my lab got interested in flow is because we hit a point in our research about I don’t know, five years ago where I realized that we knew a whole lot about why waiting was hard and almost nothing about how to make it easier for people, and so if nothing else for our own suffering, we wanted to do find that answer. And so we asked about 100 people when you have to wait, what makes it easier? And you only had to read maybe 10 of those to see that every single person was saying, I try to distract myself, I try to take my mind off it, and we’d done some research on distraction and we hadn’t found that people were very good at it or it wasn’t very effective, and so we thought, Okay, where is that disconnect coming from, and we thought, Well, maybe it is the people are not good at finding the right kinds of distractions.
And through this conversation, one of my graduate students, it’s lost to history, who it was, but had heard about flow and brought this topic up, and so that began this relatively long now research program combining these two topics of waiting and flow. Flow is a concept that is in some ways, very simple and in some ways is wildly complex and not very well understood. It’s basically being in the zone, so it’s doing something where you’re fully engaged, you are out of your mind, not out of your mind, out of your head and your worries and any other thoughts you might be having or very quiet because you are just fully immersed in the activity that you’re doing, time tends to fly by, which is a pretty good thing when you’re waiting for some news and you’re experiencing that worry, and so we thought maybe this would be helpful and maybe it is the case that people aren’t good at intuiting that they need to engage with something rather than trying to check out and relax and binge Netflix while they’re worrying.
So we did some studies where we just, well, we asked people how much they were experiencing flow, we have also put people in situations to experience more or less flow while they’re waiting, and really across the board, flow does seem to be a very powerful benefit when you’re waiting, because at the very least, it just gives you a break from your worry if you can just get into something, even if it’s something as trivial as a video game, if you’ve got the time to spare, it will give you a break from your thoughts and that can just really be an incredible benefit, especially when you’re really paralysed by worry, I’ll mention that flow, in fact, even seemed to be really helpful in the very early days of the pandemic, we had this wild opportunity in February of 2020 before most Americans at least, including myself, really knew what was coming for us to do a study with folks in China where COVID was raging, of course, at the time, and just by sheer coincidence, we call it the two-week period when COVID rates were at their highest until very recently, they’ve hit a new peak, and we asked about 6000 people in a survey how they were coping, how they were feeling.
And one of the things we did was ask if they were experiencing flow, we sadly don’t know what they were doing to get into flow, but the folks who had found flow somehow or another and were in quarantine just didn’t suffer as much as those in quarantine who hadn’t found flow, in fact, the folks in quarantine who found flow were no worse off than people who were not in quarantine at the time, so they basically zeroed out, it looks like the effect of quarantine on their well-being on every measure of well-being we could possibly think to include, I think it’s about 10 different measures. So it seems like even in the most uncertain, most restrictive experiences, flow can be a real helper.
Brett McKay: So how do you induce that flow, so say you’re waiting for whether you got a job or not, and you’re just, you’re feeling really anxious. What are some specific things that people could do to induce that flow state to alleviate some of that worry and anxiety?
Kate Sweeny: So the great thing about flow is that it is induced by different things for everyone, but I can give some tips for finding your specific flow activities, but I say it’s a good thing, by the way, because another thing I’ve studied that we might talk about is mindfulness, and I find so many people just will not consider meditation and will not consider mindfulness practice, it’s just not for them, and that’s okay. The good thing about flow is you can make it your own and put it to your own enjoyable activities.
The quick tip I have for finding your own flow activities is think of what you absolutely cannot start doing if you need to leave the house in 10 minutes because you know that you will just completely lose track of time, that’s definitely a flow activity for you, and you can think of other activities in your life that generally have that effect, so things that get you out of your head, make you lose time, that feel just really completely engaging. It’s not gonna be something passive, one of the keys for flow is that it needs to be pretty actively engaging, at least in your mind, it doesn’t have to be something physical, but needs to be something that’s pretty active, pretty challenging, something that isn’t too easy, not too hard, so there’s some characteristics you can look for, but I think we all know those things that if you start that puzzle, if you start that game, maybe even if you’re lucky, if you start that task that you love at work, you know that time is just gonna pass and you’re gonna miss the next thing. That’s gonna be your flow.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you mentioned, I think in one of the research papers, Tetris was a good flow inducer for a lot of people because as it gets harder, you have to use your brain more, and then you get to that state where it just feels like your thumbs and your mind have just melded together, they’re doing the thing they’re supposed to do, you don’t have to think about it. Yeah, so we’ve had guests in the podcast talk about flow, so yeah, physical activity that can do it for some people, dance. I think there’s like extreme sports guys, they get into the flow state a lot, so if that’s your thing, I’m not that guy, but if that’s your thing, if you’re worrying while waiting, you can do a backflip on a BMX ramp or something, and that’ll help you out.
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, it is interesting, the flow has become this obsession of so many different people in the world, I went to a conference, strangely in Iceland last summer, and there was a lot of flow research at that conference, and there were people who were extreme skiers, rock climbers, those sorts of folks tend to really experience this flow activity, in fact, people who do free climbing where you’re not on any ropes, will talk about how there’s nothing more flow-inducing than knowing that any move you may it could be the end of you. And so that is the extreme version, I agree that one’s not for me, I find flow in data analysis myself, but whatever works.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned mindfulness. What’s the research say about mindfulness, mitigating worrying while waiting?
Kate Sweeny: Mindfulness is a really powerful practice, again, it’s not for everyone, a lot of people have maybe tried it and feel it’s too hard to sit with their thoughts, but if you engage with mindfulness in the way that I think practitioners intend, it’s really quite active mentally. So mindfulness is always hard to explain without sounding a little hippy dippy, but basically it’s just a really intense focus on right now. It could be a focus on almost anything, actually, as long as it’s a sustained attentional focus, you tend to hear the suggestion to focus on your breath, but there’s nothing special about breath, it’s just that it happens whether you like it or not. And so it provides a target for your attention that will always be happening, and when we engage in that really focused attention and we just let our thoughts come and go without really getting attached to them, we just keep coming back to that, whatever it is, let’s say the breath, it seems to have the effect of going to the mental gym, it just makes your mind a little less chaotic, it requires less effort to stay focused and to be in control.
And it’s not easy to do that practice, but when you do it, it really seems to be effective. In our studies, we have found that mindfulness seems to be a really good match for feelings of worry during waiting periods. My theory about why it’s a good match is that when you’re waiting, one of the worst things you deal with is this mental time travel where maybe you’re thinking back to how many items you missed on the exam or how you could have been healthier and not gotten yourself into this medical situation, whatever the past might be, and most of all we’re thinking a lot about the future and what’s going to come. And the key with mindfulness is really to not think about the past and future, but to focus on the present, and that seems to be a really powerful antidote to worry.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it helps you avoid the rumination that can happen when you worry.
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And I should say, I don’t send people off to two-week meditation retreats to make this happen, this is really in a very brief context, we’ve done studies in the lab where people who maybe have never meditated before, just sit for 10 minutes and do a guided meditation, that’s sufficient to help them in that moment. We did a study with people taking the bar exam and had some of them practice a mindfulness meditation as often as they were willing, we said every few days, but I think at best they were doing it once a week, and again, these are not experienced mediators, and the folks who did that practice versus a different meditation even seemed to have an easier time waiting, so it’s a pretty powerful practice if you can make yourself do it.
Brett McKay: Speaking of this idea of rumination and trying to avoid it, have you guys done any research on journaling, does that help when you’re worrying while waiting?
Kate Sweeny: That’s a great question. I don’t know, actually, we haven’t done that study though, now I’m inspired to ask that question in my research. What I do know is that there’s a lot of work on what we call expressive writing, and so expressive writing is just… I’ve never done a study on it, but I know the work pretty well and they have participants think through and write about some sort of negative experience they’ve had in their life, this tends to be a very powerful intervention for folks who’ve experienced trauma and really are suffering from that trauma, and there’s something about analytically writing about the thing you experienced in the past, and I imagine it might be effective for something you’re currently going through, like a difficult waiting period. And it sucks the energy out of it in a way that makes it much less emotional and much more analytical, that stepping back seems to be really powerful. So I have not looked at journaling or even expressive writing in the context of waiting, but I think there’s a lot of good reason to think it might work.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I was thinking… So what I’ve read about the research on expressive writing is that people, when they typically start doing it, they usually try to figure out why something happened, and when you start asking why that’s when you go down this rabbit hole, ’cause that’s when it gets really emotionally just start asking why, why? But when you focus your question on how or what, ask yourself, How can I make this better, or what can I do? It puts you in your logic mode of your brain and it helps you quit worrying. And so I was thinking you’re combining journaling with preemptive benefit finding might be a useful tactic, so just sit down a journal and just write. Assume I get the bad news. How will my life be better, once I know that, I don’t know.
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, absolutely, I can totally imagine that. In our case, we sometimes do you have participants write that down just for practical purposes for our research, and so for all I know that’s maybe the key to the intervention that we’re doing, is that they’re writing about it and putting that into words, thinking about how things might be good in the future despite or in the face of bad news, it might be very important. I can also imagine that just writing down your worries and as exactly as you said, thinking about them in a more objective way, stepping out of your own perspective and looking at it objectively, those are all very powerful tools for minimizing any kind of negative emotion, I should mention, by the way, that you wanna be careful with expressive writing, that kind of analytical approach to thinking about your memories, if you do it with positive memories, it does the same thing, which is to say it completely undermines the emotional experience of it. So, good for negative events. Not so good for positive events.
Brett McKay: What role does social support play in mitigating worry while waiting?
Kate Sweeny: Social support is super important in basically every part of life, and so waiting is no exception. Social support is really tricky actually, so people have been studying versions of social support for decades and decades and decades. I would say that the journal publications on that topic probably count in the, I don’t know, tens of thousands, and yet, I would challenge you to find a researcher who could tell you “Here’s what you should do to be supportive in any given moment.” It’s really hard to know what will help, people don’t know what they need, asking for help is a little bit treacherous, we know from a well-being perspective, so supporting someone who’s in a difficult time of any sort is a challenge, I suspect and we have some evidence for this in our studies, is that supporting someone in a waiting period is an extra challenge because from the outside, when you’re not the one going through that emotional roller coaster, it’s like, “Just wait, you’ll know soon enough.”
“Let’s just not talk about this, let’s not worry about this, why don’t we just wait and find out what happens.” But of course, for the person who’s suffering, it’s not just a fallow period, it’s an emotionally incredibly difficult period, and so I think that mismatch is a little bit more problematic when people are in that moment of waiting, but when in our studies people did crack through that challenge and find ways to support their partner, let’s say their romantic partner or a friend, when that person was waiting, it did seem to really help. So the best advice I think that any social support researcher could give is don’t worry so much about exactly what you’re doing or saying, just do your best to figure out what that person needs from you in that moment and do that if you can, and they might not even know, but just being there often is really enough, even in those moments of uncertainty.
Brett McKay: Well, you’ve done some research that’s found that people or loved ones are really good at supporting someone waiting for uncertain news right after the person discovered they’ve got some uncertain news coming up, right. So let’s say you tell your spouse, I applied for this job, I may or may not get it, and the spouse is probably gonna be really supportive at that time, and then they’re gonna be really supportive again at the time you get the bad news, right, right at the moment, but it’s like in between that people really don’t know what to… They don’t know what to do.
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, it does seem that way. That’s exactly right. So our specific study was, again, with the bar exam, I’ve mentioned that experience many times because we’ve studied it many times, and that’s a long one, that’s four months, and it’s highly consequential, this was romantic partners, so your fate is intertwined usually with the person who’s taking the bar exam. That determines their career opportunities. And so it’s a really difficult period of waiting potentially for both parties, but what we found very consistently in our study is that the people who were waiting for the news, the one who took the bar exam would say, “Yeah, my partner is really great.” Right after the exam, they were like, “Oh, how did it go?” There’s lots to talk about, you can debrief about the whole experience, and then that social support started seeming to be quite a bit less effective in the middle months, let’s say the middle of two months of that four month waiting period, and then as we were getting closer to that moment of truth and the stress was ramping up and suddenly the romantic partners seemed to come back into the picture and figure out once more, how to support them, but that middle period was rocky for everyone involved.
Brett McKay: So any advice there on how to handle that middle period?
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, I think it’s really about recognizing. It’s perspective-taking, so it’s recognizing that, yeah, the exam was two months ago and the results are two months in the future, or whatever time frame you’re in, but nonetheless, this random Tuesday for whatever reason is a really hard day for my partner. And so, today is the day I need to show up, even if it feels a little unnecessary for the person who’s giving the support, if that person is having a hard day, don’t question it, show up for them then.
Brett McKay: What do you do if you’ve got someone who’s dealing with a waiting period and they’re using you as a sounding board for the rumination. Should you step in and say, “Hey, this isn’t helping. Let’s stop ’cause this isn’t going anywhere”, or should you just let them vent?
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, that’s where the problems with the social support research come in because we really don’t know, and the problem is that we have, for example, asked hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people at this point, when you’re waiting, What’s helpful for people to do? What’s unhelpful that people do, and frankly, those two lists look pretty similar, so letting someone vent might be great in one situation and in another situation that might just make them feel worse, telling them everything will be fine, it might be great in one situation for one person, it might be undermining their desire to brace and ruminate in another, and so I think, again, it’s really hard to know. It’s hard to get it right. Yeah, that’s really what I can say, which I think should be freeing for people, there is no really right answer, and so there’s really no belong answer either, if you’re being responsive to what the person seems to need, if you’re being responsive to what they wanna do at the time, that’s about the closest you can get probably to being a good support partner.
Brett McKay: Well Kate, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go and learn more about your work?
Kate Sweeny: Yeah, so I have a website, it is Katesweeny.com. The only trick is spelling my last name, which is S-W-E-E-N-Y, and we’ve got most of our work up there, we’ve got descriptions of the work we’re doing now, and also a lot of the papers that we published over the years, so that’s a good place to start.
Brett McKay: Fantastic, well, Kate Sweeny. Thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Kate Sweeny: It’s been vey enjoyable. Thanks so much for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today is Kate Sweeny, she is a psychologist, who researches waiting. You can find more information about her work at her website, Katesweeny.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/waiting, where you can find links to resources and you can delve deeper into this topic.
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