When You Have to Wait

by Sarah Pastore, LCSW

Faced with a high-stakes situation, our brains and bodies shift gears to tackle it. This stress response gives us a burst of energy, discourages us from taking unnecessary risks, and streamlines decision-making for quick action. In the longer term, chronic stress can be detrimental to our health, but in the short term, it’s designed to help us stay safe.

So what happens when we’re up against a stress-inducing situation, but… we just have to wait it out? We all go through this at some point: waiting on the results of a test, the outcome of an application, a court date, a scheduled procedure. Waiting on something so important can be excruciating. Our minds and bodies are geared up for action with no clear action to take. Let’s consider a few ways to manage your stress and anxiety during a wait. Keep in mind that these are general suggestions and may not work for everyone.


Making a slight shift in the way you think about waiting can make a difference in how the process feels. For example, it’s common to think: “There’s nothing I can do but wait.” While technically true, this thought can lead to feelings of powerlessness, frustration, or hopelessness. See how it feels to practice this thought instead: “I’ve done everything I can.” Odds are, by the time you hit the waiting period, you have taken action to address the situation. You may have filled out and submitted an application, scheduled an appointment, followed your doctor’s recommendation on testing, and so on. When that powerless, nothing-I-can-do feeling pops up, try thinking back on all the steps you’ve already taken.

It can also be empowering to think of waiting as an active rather than a passive process. Most of us think of waiting as “doing nothing.” Doing nothing is the opposite of what we want to do when something is scary or matters deeply to us. Framing waiting as a task to complete can help ward off dismay. For example: “My job now is to take care of myself so that I’ll be in the best possible position to take on what’s next.” Take care of your body, clean your home, spend time with loved ones, stock up on groceries – do whatever you need to do. You may or may not know exactly when your wait will end. You don’t need to pressure yourself to have absolutely everything squared away when the time comes, but if you’re feeling antsy, self-care is a good place to direct your energy.


Speaking of antsy, if the wait has you feeling restless and fidgety, like you physically cannot wait, trying to “relax” might feel more frustrating than soothing. Exercise can help discharge that anxious energy. You don’t need to join a gym or do an elaborate workout routine to see mental health benefits. Just find a way to move your body around. Going for a walk, running errands, cleaning, playing with kids or animals, or dancing can all work to complete the stress response and calm your system.

Stay in the present

Anxiety pulls our mind into the future. A way to take a break from that anxiety, then, is to focus on the present. Whatever you’re waiting on isn’t happening right now, so right now might be an okay place to be. The intentional practice of focusing on the here-and-now is known as mindfulness. You can find tons of mindfulness exercises and meditations on the internet, or you can practice it in your own way. Mindfulness involves attention without judgment, meaning you are simply noticing what’s going on in and around you without trying to change anything. Engaging your five senses can be especially helpful in keeping your thoughts from wandering away.

Another way of being present is, paradoxically, distraction. “Distraction” can be something of a dirty word in mental health, but it isn’t always negative. If you’ve truly done everything you can to address the situation, and the distracting activity isn’t harmful in itself, then give yourself permission to forget about what you’re waiting on. It’s okay to lose yourself in a book, project, conversation, or game for a little while. It doesn’t mean you don’t really care or that you’re refusing to face reality. If your job is to wait, finding a way to make the time fly by is a good way to do it.

Anchor to a stable point

Make a plan for what you will do just after the stressful event or after you learn the news. Maybe you can plan to go out to dinner with your partner to discuss the results once they come in. Or you could build a mental image of cuddling your cat on the couch or watching your favorite movie, after enduring a difficult procedure. Then, when the anxiety feels overwhelming, hold that plan in your mind.

Similarly, if the news/event might bring about big changes for you, try to think of what will likely remain the same. What parts of your routine will you keep? Who can you rely on to support you? For example, “Even if I lose my job, I’ll still get up every morning and walk my dog.” Or, “I know Mom will be there for me no matter what.” Anxiety thrives on uncertainty, so finding something you can be reasonably sure of can keep it in check.

Anxiety is a normal and even healthy part of life. However, if anxiety is interfering with your ability to keep up with responsibilities and relationships, or significantly affecting your quality of life, you may benefit from psychotherapy. Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health concerns. In fact, in a 2023 survey from the American Psychological Association, almost a quarter (24%) of respondents reported that they had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The good news is that there are many effective treatments for anxiety. You can fill out our contact form to request an intake appointment with one of our therapists, or you can call your insurance to find out more about your treatment options.


American Psychological Association. (2023). Stress in America 2023: A nation recovering from collective trauma. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2023/collective-trauma-recovery .