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Mindfulness meditation offsets worry of waiting
December 14, 2017, 2:58 pm

Waiting for potentially bad news can be at least as difficult as receiving the news; ask any student waiting for their exam scores to come in, or a patient waiting for a hospital test result, or even someone waiting for the outcome of a job interview.

Most people caught up in such nail-biting, waiting situations try to distract themselves, stay positive and brace for the worst. However, new research now shows that those tactics often fail to reduce distress and could backfire, making the original waiting and worrying even worse.

A research study funded by the National Science Foundation at the University of California has now found that supplementing those ineffective strategies with ‘mindfulness’ meditation can help lower the stress of waiting.

Mindfulness involves focusing on the present using meditation. The researchers assert that mindfulness is a sort of antidote to the ‘curse’ of waiting, which is a focus on the past or on the future. Questions such as, “Why did I say that?" and "What if things don't go my way?" underlie many worrisome waiting periods.

Earlier research has shown that rumination (repetitive thoughts about the past) and worry (repetitive thoughts about the future) are quite unpleasant and could be harmful to health and well-being. By focusing on the present and accepting thoughts and feelings as they arise, rather than engaging in tactics to avoid them, people can process their emotions differently and more effectively, said the researchers.

The study was performed using 150 California law students who had taken the bar exam and were awaiting the exam results. The students completed a series of questionnaires in the four-month it generally takes for results to be announced. During the waiting period, the students were asked to participate in a 15-minute audio-guided meditation session at least once a week.

Researchers found the mindfulness meditation served to postpone the phenomenon of ‘bracing’, which is essentially preparing for the worst. Previous research had shown that bracing can be an effective technique for managing expectations, but its benefits erode when it occurs too early in the waiting process. Similarly, while being optimistic makes one feel good, it does not help in preparing a person for a blow from bad news. In a perfect world, we would be optimistic as long as possible to get all the good feelings we can from assuming the best, and then we would brace for the worst at the moment of truth to make sure we are prepared for bad news. But this is not what happens in the real world.

While benefits of mindfulness meditation have long been asserted, this was the first time that its effectiveness in coping with waiting had been demonstrated, claimed the research team. Another major advantage is that the mindfulness tactic requires no training, no money, and minimal time and effort. Even 15 minutes once a week, which was the average amount of meditation practiced by the participants in the study, was enough to ease the stress of waiting.

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