Posted 07.26.2017 | by AMRA

Waiting to learn the outcome of an important event can be quite stressful. People employ a variety of strategies to cope with waiting. These may include, “bracing for the worst” or trying to maintain a positive attitude, but the employed strategies are often ineffective and sometimes counterproductive. For example, “bracing for the worst” can help when deployed at the very end of a waiting period but make things worse if engaged right from the outset.

In two related studies, Sweeny & Howell [Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin] first explored how mindfulness disposition affects coping when people wait for their performance results. They then tested whether mindfulness meditation outperforms loving-kindness meditation in helping people cope with this stressful waiting period.

In the first study, 150 law school graduates (61% female; 61% Caucasian) completed questionnaires at five different times during the 4-month period of waiting for their bar exam results. The first questionnaire was completed three days after taking the bar exam, the last within a day of getting their results. The questionnaires assessed mindfulness disposition (using the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory), “bracing for the worst,” “hoping for the best,” and self-rated coping and worry.

The results showed that more mindful graduates used “bracing for the worst” significantly less, and reserved it only for the end of the waiting period when it was likely to be of actual benefit. More mindful graduates were also significantly more likely to maintain an optimistic mindset, worry less, and report better coping.

In the second study, 90 law school graduates (56% female; 61% Caucasian) completed a questionnaire assessing dispositional optimism and intolerance for uncertainty one week before taking their bar exam. Participants were then randomly assigned to receive either a 15-minute Mindfulness Meditation (MM) video or a 15-minute Loving-kindness Meditation (LKM) video, with instructions to practice the meditations twice weekly while awaiting their exam results.

The participants completed six more questionnaires over the 4-month study, the last one within one day of receiving their exam results. The questionnaires measured the same variables (coping mechanisms, coping, and worry) as the first study. Participants also rated how much they practiced and how they felt about meditating. The participants tended to practice the 15-minute meditations only once a week on average; only 41% practiced twice weekly as instructed.

Results showed that participants who tended to be pessimistic and intolerant of uncertainty at baseline coped significantly better with waiting for their results if they practiced MM than if they practiced LKM. On the other hand, the type of meditation practiced made no difference for those who tended to be optimistic and tolerant of uncertainty.

Similarly, the participants who were most intolerant for uncertainty were significantly more likely to reserve that coping mechanism for the end of the waiting period if they engaged in MM, but not if they engaged in LKM. The meditations did not significantly impact worry or maintaining an optimistic attitude.

The findings suggest that a mindful disposition enhances coping during a stressful waiting period. Further, practicing mindfulness meditation has a beneficial effect on those who need it the most: people who are pessimistic and have trouble tolerating uncertainty. Mindfulness meditation did not reduce worry or increase optimism, but instead, helped participants to use “bracing for the worst” more strategically. The study is limited by the low intensity of its mindfulness intervention and low level of meditative practice by participants.

Reference:

Sweeny, K., & Howell, J. L. (2017). Bracing later and coping better: Benefits of mindfulness during a stressful waiting period. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

[Link to abstract]