Fear of the unknown makes us feel more stressed than we do when we know for certain that something bad is about to happen. That's according to scientists at University College London, who recently conducted a study using a computer game that administered mild electric shocks. When players were unsure what was about to happen next, they became more anxious than they did when they knew they were about to receive a shock.
Related: What stress does to your body
The same may well be true of waiting for life-changing news in general. Whether you're waiting for the results of a medical test, job application, redundancy decision or even news on whether a property offer has been accepted, that intervening 'waiting time' can feel almost debilitating. You're worried sick. You can't focus on anything else. You feel totally powerless. You feel unable to make any plans. Every day seems to last 100 years.
What's the use in worrying?
OK, it's time to take a step back and stop 'catastrophising' here. It's natural to fear the worst and think your whole world is about to end – but that won't be the case, even if it's bad news. Once you've been given the information, you can plan accordingly and start to move forward. But for now, you have no idea what the outcome will be – so why worry?
'It's a fact that our immune systems can be affected by our psychology, so if we're negative, it will have a knock-on effect on our overall health,' says life coach Pete Cohen (petecohen.com). 'The worst thing you can do while you're waiting is to worry. Of course, it's easier said than done. But let's face it: worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair. It won't actually take you anywhere.'
Related: How to stop worrying
Should you prepare for the worst?
But is it ever worth considering the worst-case scenario? While it does depend very much on the nature of the news you're waiting for, the key is to think positively and productively. Cohen explains: 'Preparing for the worst can, in certain situations, be a good technique. Just focus on what you can do, rather than on what you can't. Thinking about the positives is a better way to focus your energies.
'If you're waiting to hear whether you've been made redundant, for example, try to see it as a new challenge: if you lose your job, what can you do next? Another option would be to write down a list of the best and worst things that could happen in this situation, then decide how you'd work towards encouraging the positives.'
Related: Surprising ways to feel less anxious
Stay away from Google!
If you're waiting for medical test results, however, focusing on the worst possible outcome is not the best way to spend your time. Although it may seem there's only one of two ways this can go, in reality, there's an entire spectrum of things you may be told.
And on no account should you start blithely searching the internet for medical information: you're guaranteed to find some little detail that appears to back up your worst fears, and throws you into more of a panic. If you do feel in need of expert advice, speak to your GP. Or try a relevant charity helpline: Cancer Research UK has cancer information nurses available to talk from Monday to Friday, for example. But remember, nobody is going to be able to tell you the results any sooner.
Related: How best to search for health information online
How to distract yourself
Ultimately, your greatest weapon against waiting-time anxiety is distraction. 'In situations where you have no control over the outcome, the best thing you can do is try to take your mind off it,' says Cohen. 'That may be through reading, listening to music, meditation or confiding in a friend.' Indeed, there's no point in bottling things up: tell your friends what's going on, and chances are they'll spring into action and help keep you distracted.
Don't resort to alcohol or other unhealthy behaviours in an attempt to mask your sorrows. Try going for a walk instead. Just five minutes of exercise in a green space is enough to lift your mood, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
If you stop to smell the flowers or simply admire the landscape, it will remind you the world is still turning – even while you wait. 'Anything other than stressing about the situation will help,' says Cohen. 'Just try to remember you do have a choice about how you feel.'
Related: 10 ways to boost your mood