“Our willingness to wait reveals the value we place on what we’re waiting for”
– Charles Stanley
The anxiety of waiting is torture. Test results, an admission decision, the results of a job interview, election results, even a first date…
Among the most universal experiences of anxiety, waiting can be grueling to endure and can feel limited only by the people and things we care about. Most recently, anxiety over what’s to come from the 2016 presidential election has taken hold of our communities, offices, and kitchen tables, leaving many of us left wringing our hands in the discomfort of not knowing.
We tell ourselves we have done what we can do, and the outcome is now out of our hands. Being no longer in control, we should be able to “let it go,” sit back, and relax, right? For some, yes. But for most people, and certainly for worriers, this simply isn’t possible, and may not actually be advisable according to recent science. Put simply, your anxiety has a job to do, even if it feels like there is nothing to do but wait. If you are feeling it, there’s a reason.
So how can you tap into anxiety’s purpose and harness those edgy feelings, compulsive distractions, and sleepless nights to better cope? Start with these four common drivers of anxiety, and see how you use them to your advantage.
- You care. And not just a little bit. You care a lot. Anxiety doesn’t hound us about things that are unimportant. It reserves itself for the things we care about most – our future, the people and communities we love, and our deepest values. So feeling it means you care. Simply embracing what you care about can help you channel your feelings more directly, even reframing your language putting worries into caring statements: “I care about our country’s leadership,” “I care about my future and the opportunities it holds,” “I care about getting to know him better.” We might not know what’s going to happen, but recognizing how we care can ease our angst.
- You don’t believe you can handle the outcome: Embedded in heightened anxiety is almost always the irrational belief that we won’t be able to handle an undesired outcome. The trick here is to detangle the outcome from how we handle it. Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking research on mindset teaches us that how we handle something and what we learn from it is actually more important that what happens. So as you think – and worry – about an undesirable outcome, let your mind mull over how you will handle it, and what you will do differently if the worst case occurs. Devising plan B, even a plan C, gives your anxiety the productive outlet it’s craving, and studies have shown this helps. Knowing you will learn from whatever happens is the foundation of a growth mindset, and it is yours for the taking.
- Deep down you know you may not have done all you could: But who could, really? For worriers, there will always be a nagging list of those things you could have done but didn’t: those emails you could have worded better, that conversation that could have been smoother, those opportunities left on the table. This second-guessing is a natural part of reviewing a situation and learning from our mistakes, but only insofar as it helps us learn for next time. Ruminating and obsessing keeps you stuck in the past and can unhelpfully escalate your anxiety, but a moderate amount of anxiety can be useful in focussing on the present and future. It’s not so much about what you did, or didn’t do, as it is about what you can do now – preparing for that next career opportunity, application process, or political race. Being honest with what you did well, and what you can improve on, is how you can channel anxiety into better meeting the next challenge.
- In focusing too much on the outcome, we squeeze out gratitude: In wanting something so badly, it’s easy to ignore the success and blessings all around us. Moreover, thanks to our negativity bias we are more likely to focus on problems than successes. The anxiety of wanting something presents a unique opportunity to ask yourself, and notice, what you already have for which you are grateful. Gratitude has been shown to be a salve for almost all things negative these days. Instead of focusing on a negative outcome, why not find the blessings in it? You just might find a bit of gratitude can help rebalance your perspective.
No matter what you discover about anxiety, or its meaning for you, the important thing to remember is that anxiety is energy to do something to solve it. Almost anything that chips away at the problem will allow anxiety an outlet, and thus deliver you the control you crave in facing the not knowing. So don’t be afraid to tap into your anxiety of waiting for something you value. This is what it feels like to care, and put that caring into action.