The Anxiety of Waiting is Hell, But It Doesn’t Have To Be

My own experience has taught me that anxiety-ridden waiting periods don’t need to become your own personal hell

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If there is a Hell, and I’m not sure there is, I don’t think it’s full of fiery lakes and sadistic demons. Those tortures are so impersonal that it’s hard for me to imagine what they might be like.

The hell I think of looks exactly like my local social security office: I’m in the waiting room, sitting in of those uncomfortable wooden chairs, and twiddling my thumbs while I wait for them to call my ticket number. The disgruntled security guard sits at his post in the corner with peeled eyes, and a government-mandated commercial on the TV reminds me to ask an agent if I’m eligible for Medicaid benefits. Every two or three minutes, a monotone voice calls the next ticket number over the intercom — but it’s not mine. In Hell, it would never be mine. I’m just waiting and waiting and waiting for a meeting that will never happen.

I know that this might seem like a much easier punishment than getting sliced open by demons for all eternity, but it is hell. The past ten months have taught me that the anxiety of waiting can be its own special kind of torture — but only if we let it be. With enough effort, we can put our worried minds at ease.

The first step is to admit you care about the end result

Waiting is unavoidable. We wait for test results, job interviews, college admissions, and election results. As I write this, I’m currently waiting for the outcome of my disability application — if I’m approved, I will begin receiving almost a $1,000 a month in disability benefits.

This isn’t the first time I’ve applied. I started this process ten months ago. Although I’ve technically been disabled since I was born, my condition, and the eight surgeries I’ve had to improve it, have resulted in extremely limited mobility and chronic pain. I’ve never really wanted to apply for disability but attending college full-time coupled with my inability to work a regular job hasn’t left me with a lot of options.

The first time I applied, in April of 2018, I was so sure that I’d get approved. My medical records are a mile long, and the disability application is tedious: it took me two days to compile a list of every doctor I’ve visited, every test I’ve ever had, and every medication I’ve taken. When I was done, I submitted this information to the Social Security Administration and confidently waited.

For five months.

I was anxious, but it was easy to remind myself that I had this one in the bag — or so I thought. At the end of those five months, I opened a thin, white envelope to discover that the culmination of my time and efforts had resulted in a denial. Even worse, that denial wasn’t even justified — as the result of a bureaucratic screw-up, the Social Security Administration wasn’t able to obtain the majority of my actual records. All they had to base their decision on was one measly visit to the chiropractor.

The disappointment I felt after waiting for so long, and being so sure of the decision, was crushing. More than anything, I felt betrayed by the organization, and my case handler, who had promised to do right by me.

The only thing I could really do next was begin an appeal — which is where I’m at now. This time, I haven’t taken any chances — I’ve called every doctor and hospital I’ve ever been to and gathered all my medical records myself. I’ve marched down to the local social security office and stood in the bitter cold so I could hand-deliver these five-hundred pages of medical records to an agent. I can’t count how many times I’ve sat in that crowded lobby, waiting to speak with someone about my case.

At first, I attempted to distance myself from the situation. I tried to tell myself I didn’t care if I got approved or denied — not because this is true, but because I’ve been afraid to experience the same crushing disappointment as last time. But, as I’ve learned, distance didn’t ease my anxiety.

Most of the time, the things we have to wait long periods of time for are the things we really care about. A new job, test results, a college acceptance letter, a disability application — we will spend months lingering in limbo for these things because we know they can change our lives.

It’s only natural to want to separate yourself from a possibly negative end result; disappointment is not an easy emotion to experience. However, distance will do more harm than good.

Deep down, you do care about your future. You do want this opportunity. So, instead of trying to avoid your feelings, try embracing them.

Accepting your emotions might seem like you’re making yourself vulnerable, but it’s the opposite. If you do face disappointment, embracing your feelings is a direct route to recovery and healing. Telling yourself you don’t care won’t make your feelings go away — they’ll simply be shoved aside until they eventually boil over.

A study spearheaded by psychology professor, Kate Sweeney, substantiates this idea: when she studied law school graduates waiting for the results of their bar exam, Sweeney found that the ones who tried to distract themselves had a harder time dealing with a negative outcome in comparison to the ones who accepted their anxiety and uncertainty.

Obsessively worrying over an outcome for months at a time isn’t healthy, but welcoming your fear and concern may help reduce the anxiety you have while waiting — and definitely help you cope with possible negative results later.

Don’t dwell on the “why didn’t I” scenarios

When I got denied for disability the first time around, I spent a lot of sleepless nights pondering the “why didn’t I” scenarios. Why didn’t I call my case handler more? Why didn’t I press her for more details about my case? Why didn’t I gather my medical records myself first?

If you let them, the “why-didn’t-I” scenarios will consume you. This is really a side-effect of hindsight bias — which is the idea that we overestimate our ability to predict a result that we could not have known beforehand.

There is no way I could’ve predicted the bureaucratic screw-up that would lead to my denial, but the thought that I could have done something to prevent it still lingers from time to time.

The best way to deal with hindsight bias is not to focus on the “why-didn’t-I” scenarios but to learn from your experiences. This time around, I’ve been a lot more active with my disability case. I’ve made sure the past blunder can’t be repeated.

If you’re waiting to hear about a job, don’t obsess over what you should've done in the interview. Accept what happened, and focus on what you could do in the next one. If you’re unsure whether or not you passed the bar exam, don’t just keep replaying how you should have studied longer or known all the answers. Trust the choices you made, and prepare for the future. We can’t fix past mistakes, but the future is a blank book of possibilities.

Remember that the world isn’t ending

Before, I told you to embrace how much you care about the end result — but there is a caveat here. While you do want to acknowledge your feelings, you also don’t want to exxagerate them to the point of no recovery. That new job may change your life, but if you don’t get it, other opportunities will eventually arise.

As much as I want to be approved for disability, I am surviving right now. The world won’t go up in flames and the zombies won’t take over if I’m denied. I’ll just keep on surviving.

If you aren’t careful, the frustration and anxiety you feel during the waiting period will make you forget to be grateful for all that you already have. Our lives are filled with possibilities and opportunities, and you don’t want to let one disappointment — no matter how bad — make you overlook that.

Stay positive

While you don’t want to assume the outcome of your wait will be favorable, you also don’t want to assume it will be negative, either. Once you embrace your fear and anxiety, you can focus on not allowing these emotions to run completely rampant. Remind yourself that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

For the past couple of weeks, when I’ve thought about my own disability case, I’ve repeated positive affirmations like: You have a strong case. You’ve done everything you can. You have a decent shot here.

Believe it or not, but these little phrases of positively and self-trust have gone a long way in making the wait more bearable. The only way to counter the negative thoughts you’ll have is to intentionally think positively. If you’re going to have a devil on your shoulder, whispering negatively, you might as well keep an angel around, too.

I don’t know what lies ahead in my future or yours — but I do know that we don’t need to be in hell while we wait for it. It’s easy to feel helpless in a situation where the outcome is not determined by you. Frustration and anxiety will eat you alive if you let them, but by staying positive, embracing your emotions, disregarding your past mistakes and remaining grateful, you can actually take back control.

When I’m not writing, you can usually find me hanging out with my cats.

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