Soothing sensory tools and grounding techniques, such as music and deep breathing, can help when you’re experiencing waiting-related anxiety.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Good things come to those who wait,” but who can wait patiently?
Waiting is hard, nail-biting work. Whether you’re waiting to hear if you got that job you interviewed for or got into the college you always wanted, waiting can be stressful.
And the longer you have to wait, the more stressful and anxious it can be. Your mind may fill with negative thoughts and what-if scenarios.
“What if I didn’t get into that college?” “What if I didn’t get the job?” “What if I have to start all over again?”
Waiting and the negative thoughts that run through your mind can trigger anxiety. But there are many ways you can ease anxiety while waiting, including awareness and redirection.
Anxiety from waiting often relates to our perception of certainty and control, says Michelle Davis, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist in California specializing in anxiety research and treatment.
“As humans, it’s foundational to our psychological well-being to feel either a sense of certainty about what will happen in the future or a sense that we have an element of control over what will happen,” Davis says.
“When things feel both uncertain (in that we’re not sure what will happen) and outside of our control (in that we don’t know how or if we’ll be able to manage it), we tend to feel stress.”
Many people experience anxiety while waiting. Situations such as waiting for important news, waiting for a text back from someone, or waiting to speak up in a meeting could have several different results.
Waiting stress can also arise when preparing to take off on an airplane, riding as a passenger in a car, or getting stuck in traffic longer than expected.
“Evolutionarily, it makes sense that we feel anxiety in these scenarios,” Davis says. “It was important for our ancestors to feel a sense of distress when faced with uncertainty about their next meal, or lack of control around safety from the elements.”
Waiting anxiety can even occur in a doctor’s office, according to a 2014 review. In this review, researchers discovered that anxiety levels increased once a person entered a doctor’s office waiting area, especially when waiting for surgery.
Anxiety during a waiting period, sometimes known as anticipation anxiety, occurs as the nervous system prepares for the outcome of an uncertain event.
Though anxiety may be the body’s attempt at biological protection, anticipatory stress can occur at inconvenient times and affect all aspects of life.
Result anxiety, which can arise in relation to academic performance, is one common example of waiting-related anxiety experienced by students.
“While we’re waiting, we create various scenarios of what can potentially happen, which tends to be the worst possible outcome,” according to Cecily Batiste Dawson, MEd, licensed professional counselor in Kingwood, Texas. “The mere thought of the worse scenario releases additional stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.”
Waiting is a kind of inaction, a delay. It’s defined as staying inactive while expecting something to happen.
There are two parts of the brain mainly involved in our perception of waiting, according to Marlon Rollins, PhD, licensed mental health counselor and professional clinical counselor in Los Angeles.
The amygdala maintains and modifies anxiety and fear, operating as an alarm system. It’s constantly scanning for danger, while the cerebral cortex is responsible for attention, perception, language, and thinking.
“When someone is waiting, the cortex is actively thinking about what it means to have to endure the wait,” Rollins says. “The body and mind are on a feedback loop. We overly focus on anticipation and catastrophizing on something unknown, then fear and anxiety increase without cause.”
When a person is waiting, they’re not “in control” of a situation. If waiting is internally perceived as a lack of safety or a threat, the body’s automatic response may send signals to provide protection.
Worry in the cerebral cortex may alert the amygdala to the possibility of danger, while the amygdala activates the brain stem and nervous system. When the fear response is activated, heart rate increases, muscles tense, teeth clench, and breath shortens.
“Many have learned our fight, flight, or freeze response is triggered when dangerous stimuli are physically in front of us,” Batiste Dawson explains. “The reality is: When we simply think of the dangerous stimuli, our brain and body respond as if it’s already happening.”
Davis teaches clients to work toward changing their relationship to the experience of anxiety rather than attempting to eliminate it entirely. She says reducing anxiety begins with understanding the nature of the emotion as adaptive, temporary, and not dangerous.
“Emotions are adaptive in that they give us signals to pay attention to something important,” Davis says.
But in modern times, our emotional experience of anxiety may create a physical response incongruent with the actual level of danger in a situation.
Consider trying these tips to refocus your mind, relax your nervous system, and reduce the experience of anxiety while waiting.
1. Develop awareness and self-compassion
Mindful emotional awareness is a practice of bringing attention to the feelings of the present moment, focusing on observing your experience as objectively and non-judgmentally as possible, Davis says.
She adds that awareness involves observing a sensation, such as your breath or the feeling of your feet against the floor, then noticing any thoughts, physical sensations, or urges present.
Try to be compassionate toward your experience and make space for your emotions, rather than wondering why the anxiety is happening, wishing it would go away, or beating yourself up.
“Self-compassion may look like placing a hand over the heart and saying internally, ‘this experience is difficult for me,'” Davis says.
2. Introduce sensory support
Waiting is sensory, and it’s related to how we sense and perceive time. Another technique you can try to ease anxiety involves supporting yourself with calming sensory stimulation, such as music and aromatherapy.
Background music has been shown to decrease anxiety in people waiting for medical care, according to a 2021 review.
Music can help tune out the world, while introducing aromatherapy may help reduce anxiety by specific responses in the body.
Batiste Dawson recommends creating a sensory bag to help manage anxiety in a therapeutic setting. A sensory bag is a small, makeup-size bag that may include items such as fidget toys, peppermints, or aromatherapy products.
3. Breathe deeply
Deep breathing is an effective technique for dealing with anxiety while waiting, and it’s accessible anywhere and at any time. You can use it before an exam, before that big interview, or before opening test results.
Deep breathing can reduce high levels of stress hormones in the body. Relaxation techniques, such as 4-7-8 breathing and breathing while body scanning, can help calm the mind.
4. Redirect your focus
It’s sometimes hard to distract from anxiety.
Davis suggests focusing on behaviors aligned with important areas of your life, which may include reconnecting with a friend during a waiting period, looking up a class to indulge in a creative outlet, or engaging in the act of service for someone else.
Davis says that focusing on the aspects of life that are important to you and within your control can help ease your anxiety. “This skill can take some practice to develop, but it can provide benefit over a lifetime,” Davis adds.
5. Try different techniques
“It’s important to see what works best for you,” Batiste Dawson says. “If someone is sensitive to noise and is overstimulated when experiencing anxiety, the recommendation may be to not listen to music because it may increase anxiety.”
Setting up a system of timely updates during a waiting period, pursuing peer-to-peer support, engaging in pet therapy, and practicing hand massage are other research-backed approaches to reducing waiting anxiety.
Creating a calming environment can also be helpful for reducing waiting anxiety, according to a
“Peers who are calm, aromas, and massage can all give you internal and external queues that the threat of waiting is not real,” Rollins says. “Giving control to your body, space, and the moment, as opposed to the overprocessing of the anxious mind, can help ease anxiety.”
It may not be possible to make time go faster when waiting for something, but it can be possible to reduce the negative associations with waiting.
Learning how to deal with anxiety involves the active cultivation of awareness and patience. “Many times, the beliefs we attach to anxiety can be more painful than the experience of the emotion itself,” Davis says.
Implementing tips to reground yourself while you wait, along with mental health support, can help reduce the experience of anxiety while waiting.
“Creating meaning in time by focusing on something other than the event can help,” Rollins says. “Try to relax your mind and embrace distractions that help you gain a sense of control.”