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Facing Uncetainty? Forget Positivity. Worry!

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, December 4, 2015
Facing Uncertainty? Forget Positivity. Worry!

Embracing anxiety in the face of uncertainty can be productive. A new study suggests people who worry during long waits are more elated with good news and better prepared for disappointments.

Kate Sweeney,an associate professor of psychology At the University of California, Riverside, and colleagues, wanted to examine consequences of how people think during periods of high stakes limbo: when they are awaiting results of a biopsy, a college application, a job offer or a really important test like a bar exam where results aren't immediately available. The researchers studied coping mechanisms of 230 law school graduates as they waited four months for results of the July 2013 California bar exam.

In a New York Science Times story by Jan Hoffman, Sweeney described three common strategies people use to endure the discomforts of contemplating unknown outcomes. Some try to immerse themselves in unrelated activities such as exercise, binge TV watching and games, but these quick fixes tend not to work over the long haul. As Sweeney told the Times, "The more you try not to pay attention, the more aware you become."Others aspire to make lemonade from lemons. They look to adversity as fuel for person growth. But as Sweeney says, that's a defensive posture that may not help. A more productive approach, researchers say, is to hope for the best and brace for the worst, using defensive pessimismand proactive coping. Or as the Times story puts it, "dive into the worry maelstrom (and) surface with contingency plans."

Julie K. Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley and author of "The Positive Power of Negative Thinking," was not involved in the study. But she advises, "Set your expectations low and think through the negative possibilities. It drives optimists crazy, but it drives your attention away from feelings of anxiety to what you can do to address the disaster that might happen."

Evaluating bad possibilities may also make success sweeter. Sweeney reports that anxious waiters did well when news came, whatever it was. They were thrilled with good news, and had plans ready for bad news. She said those who sailed unperturbed through the waiting, on the other hand, were shattered by bad news and if they got good news, they were underwhelmed. Read the Times story here.

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