How to reduce worry when waiting for potentially bad news

Posted on November 21st, by Dr Rob Yeung .

Do you ever worry when waiting for important news? Maybe when you have gone for a job interview and you’re waiting to hear whether or not you might get the job. Perhaps you had a medical test and you’re hoping that it won’t be bad news. Maybe you pitched an idea to a client, but you’re really not sure how things will turn out. Or your line manager tells you that the two of you need to meet for a somewhat ominous-sounding “very important discussion” in a few days’ time.

A lot of people worry and feel stressed when waiting for confirmation whether an uncertain situation will turn out well or badly. But new research suggests that a mental technique known as pre-emptive benefit finding could help people to cope better.

Considering upsides

Psychologists have long known that it can help to take the sting out of a bad situation by thinking of possible benefits of that situation. For instance, someone who has gone through a relationship breakup might try to think of upsides to being single again such as never having to compromise over what TV shows to watch at home. Someone else who has been turned down for a promotion might remind herself that she will have more spare time than if she had gotten the promotion. In both of these situations, these individuals can be said to have engaged in benefit finding after the fact.

But the new research focuses on benefit finding before the news has been received. In a series of investigations, psychological scientists Kyla Rankin and Kate Sweeny studied the extent to which experimental participants were considering the potential upsides (or “silver linings”) associated with what might turn out to be bad news.

In one investigation, the researchers tracked 150 would-be lawyers who had just taken the California bar exam but had yet to hear the result. The researchers found that the would-be lawyers who agreed more with statements such as “I feel like I would grow as a person if I fail the bar exam” and “I feel I’ll learn something from the experience if I fail the bar exam” tended to experience less negative emotion. In other words, those individuals who started to consider the possible benefits of failure helped themselves to be less emotionally distressed. Interestingly though, the would-be lawyers who used pre-emptive benefit finding were less distressed both while waiting as well as after they found out whether they had passed or failed the exam.

The researchers found that the technique was similarly effective for voters who were worried that their preferred political candidate might not win. Those who engaged in pre-emptive benefit finding were again less emotionally distraught when the opposing candidate actually won.

Putting pre-emptive benefit finding into practice

Pre-emptively considering upsides seems to protect wellbeing then. So, how can you use pre-emptive benefit finding? You could use it whenever you are worried about potentially failing or being rejected, fired or otherwise let down. When you are waiting to hear about news that might turn out to be either good or bad, consider writing a paragraph in response to the following prompt:

Please think of at least one benefit that would come from receiving bad news about this situation. What silver linings could come from receiving news that you would rather not hear? Please list at least one benefit and then expand on your thinking: why is what you listed a benefit? How is this a benefit related to your health, your work, your family, or your life in general?

And remember: the research suggests that pre-emptive benefit finding may reduce distress and improve wellbeing not only while waiting for potentially bad news – but also after the news has arrived. Give it a go and let me know how you get on.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.