Why Waiting Is So Damn Stressful

Pensive older man holding mug while looking outside.
Photo: Oliver Rossi/Getty Images

After the election, many of us found ourselves gripped by a new, specific type of stress: anticipatory anxiety. As the name suggests, it’s a kind of anxiety that’s triggered by an event or experience that has yet to happen. For instance, you may have experienced anticipatory anxiety with regard to upcoming doctors’ appointments or job interviews. The phenomenon known colloquially as cold feet could be seen as anticipatory anxiety before a wedding ceremony.

And you may be feeling it, at this very moment, about the transition of presidential power. What happens now?

The uncomfortable unknown

Anticipatory anxiety makes very specific demands of us: Namely, we must tolerate ambiguity, which is something our brains don’t like very much. We are anxious for the event — the peaceful transition to a new presidential administration — and we are anxious about the effects of the event, which we can’t yet discern. Some of us are also concerned about what may happen between now and then.

These situational unknowns come with personal ones, too. Many of us are anxious about how we will feel once the unknowns are answered. We’re worried about how our lives might change in the aftermath.

We are in no man’s land. But it’s important to at least try to bring ourselves back to the present and to what we do know.

A technique to reground yourself

Getting grounded in the present can be as simple as looking around the room and taking stock of what information is being filtered through your senses, physically, right now: What do you see, smell, touch, taste, and hear? What are you aware of around you?

From there, turn your focus inward. What changes in your body if you encourage yourself to focus on what is happening right now rather than spinning off into catastrophic narratives set in the future? Notice the pace and rhythm of your heartbeat and breathing. How is your body affected by what you’re thinking and feeling?

This type of mind-body communication awareness is known as interoception, which is associated with healthy emotional regulation — and, crucially, with stress reduction.

Though it may sound pretty straightforward, interoception can be quite challenging to practice, particularly for those of us who have experienced trauma, chronic pain, or prolonged stress. It’s second nature, after all, to dissociate from your surroundings, whether by watching TV or by doomscrolling the news. And for people who have experienced trauma, the instinct to disassociate is often reinforced as a defensive response; during a traumatic event, it may have been emotionally safer to disassociate than to stay present.

The good news is that interoception still works if you start small. What happens when you — with caution — look within? What happens if you practice curiosity about the discomfort that arises in your body when you’re stuck in a period of worrisome unknowns? If you try to build tolerance around feeling “both/and” — both afraid of what the future holds and grounded in the present?

Most of all, be patient with yourself. Our bodies did not evolve to be able to make sense of so many varied, continual stressors. As the hours and days continue to pass, returning to “both/and” is a practice that will serve us well, again and again, to manage this unique type of stress.

Christina Tesoro is a New York City-based writer, sex educator, and therapist.

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