How people cope with acute moments of stress and uncertainty — like when they are waiting for big news in their life — can come to define them. Kate Sweeny, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and she’s studied how people manage stress for over a decade.
“I’m a worrier by nature — I get it from my mom— and I find waiting periods to be particularly difficult,” Sweeny tells Inverse. “Whenever I’m waiting for important news, I feel like I can’t think about anything else until I find out the answer. In that sense, my research is “me-search,” as I try to find ways to reduce my own stress as well as the stress of others who suffer the same affliction.
Below is an abbreviated interview with Sweeny. The full interview — and more like them — can be read every Sunday in the Sunday Scaries newsletter. We asked Sweeny, stress researcher, about her work, and how she personally deals with her own stress.
Is there an academic understanding as to why uncertainty causes so much stress?
We’re working on it! In some ways, it seems almost silly that it would be harder to wait for bad news than to get bad news — and yet, that’s what people tell me over and over again. My view is that waiting is stressful because it combines two difficult states: not knowing what’s coming and not being able to do anything about it. That is, uncertainty is hard enough when you have some control over your future. When you’re uncertain and you have no control over what happens, our evolutionary instincts for danger go on red alert without any good way to turn off the alarm.
Based on your research, what are some actionable steps that people can take to fight off that type of stress?
We’ve identified at least three good ways to make stressful waiting periods a bit easier.
1. We recently discovered that experiencing awe — for example, by going to the Grand Canyon, seeing a baby come into the world, or learning about the vastness of the universe — can be helpful during waiting periods. Awe is particularly good for boosting positive emotions, which has the effect of making the stress of waiting a bit more bearable.
2. We’ve found that engaging in activities that put you in a flow state — a state of total engagement, in which time seems to fly by — reduces anxiety and makes waiting easier. Everyone finds flow in different ways, but it helps to think about activities that are enjoyable but that also challenge you just the right amount — neither boring nor frustrating.
3. Mindfulness meditation is a particularly good antidote to the stress of waiting. One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it reduces mental time travel. That is, rather than thinking about the past (“I really messed up that interview!”) and the future (“What’s going to happen to my family if I don’t get that job?”) mindfulness meditation helps you focus on the present moment.
Does your research provide guidance for helping friends and partners when they go through stressful moments of uncertainty like waiting to hear back about that new job?
I think these moments can be some of the toughest when it comes to social support. Do you tell the person everything will be fine? Do you help them game out worst-case scenarios? Do you distract them? Talk things through with them?
Unfortunately, the answer seems to be: “It depends.” When it comes to supporting someone in all kinds of different circumstances, the key is to be responsive — it’s not so important what you do, but rather that you listen, understand what they’re going through, respect how they’re feeling, and communicate that you care. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s a good reminder that sometimes the best and only way to help someone is to be there for whatever they need at the moment.
Do you ever find yourself using what you’ve learned in research as a means to deal with your own stress?
All the time! Anytime I’m waiting for some kind of important news, I try to remember to meditate and find stuff to do that keeps me in a state of flow. Now that we’ve discovered the power of awe in those situations, I suspect I’ll be watching a lot more Planet Earth, too.
Here’s the big picture question: With these studies out in the world, how do you hope that people apply your research to their lives?
Although I decided to go into basic research rather than a helping field, I still hope that my research will ultimately make people’s lives easier. I talk to the media as often as possible, and I’m planning to write a book in the next few years because I don’t want our research to get lost in the labyrinth of academic publishing. If my research isn’t useful to regular people, I’m doing something wrong.
This Week’s Chill Icon
This week’s chill icon in 77-year-old Mary Wischhusen. On May 31, an 11-foot-long alligator broke into her home in Clearwater, Florida, and, in the process, broke open Wischhusen’s red wine bottles and left a dent in her fridge. Did Wischhusen care? No.
She told the Tampa Bay Times it was a “fun thing actually” and enjoyed the company of the cute police and fire rescue workers who came to the scene. Now strangers are leaving bottles of red wine at the doorstep of the “gator lady,” because the people can recognize an icon.