what to do when you have to wait and worryAny time we have to wait, many of us get nervous. Very nervous. Our minds fill with disastrous scenarios and all kinds of what-ifs.

What if the results are negative? Or positive? What if I failed the final? What if I failed the bar? Again? When will this marriage finally — and officially — be over?

We try to focus on our work, but the negative thoughts surround us like a pack of wolves. We try to relax, but we just feel too tense and tight. We want to have an answer. But instead we must wait. And wait.

Many circumstances in our lives present with a waiting period – which can trigger our anxiety. Carolyn Ferreira’s clients have experienced anxiety while waiting for everything from MRI results, to a loved one’s recovery, to the finalization of a divorce, to the settlement of a deceased parent’s estate.

Worry can trigger our fight-or-flight response. “Activating this system several times in a day or even week can be emotionally and physically draining,” said Ferreira, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Bend, Ore. who specializes in anxiety. When we’re in fight-or-flight mode regularly, it can lead to insomnia, stomachaches and elevated blood pressure, she said.

Worry also is fruitless. “Worrying does not accomplish anything except feeling terrible,” said Alyssa Mairanz, LMHC, a psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in anxiety and stress reduction.

But you probably know that worry isn’t very helpful. And you probably know it only hurts your health. But you also probably can’t stop. Below, Ferreira and Mairanz shared seven suggestions for reducing worry while you wait.

Stimulate your senses

“Research shows that activating your senses changes your biological and chemical response, thereby reducing intense emotional feelings,” Mairanz said. (Learn more here.) She shared these examples of stimulations you can try: Splash cold water on your face. Take a very hot bath. Eat something very salty or sour. Engage in intense aerobic exercise. Clench various parts of your body, and then release them. For instance, “clench your fist very tight, hold for a few seconds, then release.”

Pick a healthy distraction

Pick an activity to do, such as painting, watching TV, reading a book or listening to music, Mairanz said. “[M]ake the conscious effort to focus on the activity you choose and not let your thoughts wander.”

Take deep breaths

This is Mairanz’s favorite way to practice deep breathing (and it’s super simple): Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Inhale, count to five, and then exhale. Repeat as often as you need. Remember that your breath — and thereby calm — is available to you at any time. It might not feel like it, but even one deep breath can help.

Recite helpful words

Mairanz suggested coming up with a mantra or words of encouragement that you can tell yourself. She shared these examples:

  • I am strong and courageous and can get through this.
  • I am worthy and enough.
  • I believe in myself and my capabilities.
  • I am in charge of how I feel, and today I choose to feel calm and relaxed.
  • I am deserving.

Ferreira noted that her clients find comfort in reciting the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”

This quote from the Dalai Lama helps Ferreira ease her own anxiety: “If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.”

Try this self-compassion exercise

Ferreira uses this technique from self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff with her clients: Place your hand over your heart or stomach, or cup your face. Acknowledge the stressful situation by saying: “This is a moment of suffering.” Then say: “Everyone experiences suffering,” which helps to normalize what you’re going through. Finally, say: “May I be peaceful” or “a similar soothing word that works for [you], such as ‘happy,’ ‘calm’ or ‘safe.’”

Lead a mindful life  

According to Mairanz, “staying present-focused is the key to managing anxiety.” Practicing mindfulness on a daily basis prepares us for the moments when anxiety arises, and builds up our resilience, she said.

One strategy is to give tasks your full attention. “For example, if you are doing the dishes, notice how your hands feel touching the sponge, notice the smell of the soap, focus on the sound the water makes as it hits each dish, etc.”

Keep engaging in your life  

Sometimes Ferreira’s clients think they need to put their lives on hold until they have their answer. “It is natural to want to hide when we’re worried, scared or anxious, but isolation feeds into the fearful thoughts.” It only makes us feel more anxious and more alone.

So “don’t stop doing what you’re already doing,” Ferreira said. “Keep going to church, keep going to the gym, keep going to yoga, keep doing what you love to do with whom you love.” Because whatever the outcome or results, it’s unlikely that you’ll regret enjoying sweet moments while you waited.

Waiting is hard. It means giving up control. It means living in uncertainty. But worry isn’t our only option, even though it can seem like it is, even though its pull is so powerful. Try these seven strategies. Find what really supports you.

Painting photo available from Shutterstock