If after you’ve finished a job interview, you tend to bite your nails to shreds and mentally replay the questions you fumbled until you’ve convinced yourself that you absolutely, positively
didn’t get the job, take heart.
You may have a leg up on everyone else.
Specifically, you may be in a better position to deal with both good and bad news when it finally arrives.
That’s according to new research led by Kate Sweeny, Ph.D. at the University of California, Riverside, and cited in The New York Times. Sweeny and her colleagues wanted to specifically investigate the effects of worrying while waiting for important, potentially life-changing results.
So they looked at 230 law school graduates taking the July 2013 California bar exam, starting two weeks before the exam and ending soon after the results were released four months later.
Study participants filled out questionnaires at several points throughout the study period, indicating things like how anxious they felt and how consumed they were thinking about the exam; how often they tried to distract themselves or hide their feelings; how confident they felt that they would pass the exam; and how much time they spent planning to cope with potential failure.
Results suggested that there were three general strategies for dealing with the waiting period.
While some people tried to distract themselves and pretend that they weren’t freaking out, others tried to think of a silver lining to failure. The third group actively anticipated the possibility of failure. This last strategy is similar to what researchers call “defensive pessimism,” or embracing and preparing for the worst while still hoping for the best.
Eighty-five per cent of participants passed the exam. The 33 people who failed were asked whether they could believe that they had failed and whether they could accept the situation. Those who passed were asked whether they felt relieved.
Two fascinating findings emerged. First, participants’ efforts to distract themselves and hide their feelings weren’t particularly helpful at alleviating their anxiety. In fact, those who tried to distract themselves often ended up feeling more anxious.
“Our findings suggest that the advice to ‘just try to distract yourself’ or to ‘take your mind off it’ is not necessarily a recipe for a distress-free waiting period,” the authors write, adding that “perhaps a better alternative would be to simply experience and express emotions in a natural way without attempting to suppress them.”
Second, worrying seemed to be productive.
If they failed, participants who had ruminated and acted pessimistic during the waiting period “were more motivated to spring into action, presumably with an eye on retaking the exam at the next available opportunity,” the researchers write. On the other hand, people who tried to stay positive and optimistic “responded to news of failure with a sense of disbelief and denial.”
If they passed, participants who had struggled through the waiting period were more pleasantly surprised, while participants who had made it through easily were relatively underwhelmed.
The researchers say their findings “reveal an emotional trade-off.” Whether you’re waiting to hear back about a job or an academic exam, worrying for a few weeks or months may predict a better experience receiving the results.
In other words, don’t worry about worrying; know that you’re engaging in a totally natural process that may even be productive in the long run.
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