Waiting Games

    Engaging in absorbing activities can significantly improve mental health during quarantine. Find activities that are challenging and time-consuming to achieve a state of flow and gain a sense of control during difficult times.

    enDecember 22, 2020

    About this Episode

    For so many people across the globe, 2020 has been a year of waiting and uncertainty. Waiting to see friends and family in far-flung locales. Waiting to hear about unemployment aid, or job opportunities. Waiting to hear about loved ones in the hospital. And even though the end of 2020 does not mean the end of these hardships, many of us are letting out a sigh of relief as we say goodbye to this difficult year. This week on Hidden Brain, we look at the psychology of relief and waiting, and how we can make periods of limbo less painful.

    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Waiting for relief can be hard, but experiencing relief can bring happiness. Our perception of safety affects our enjoyment of experiences. Find joy and gratitude to cope with waiting for normalcy to return.
    • When observing wild animals on safari, follow safety protocols such as turning off the vehicle engine. Respect the animals' power and don't take unnecessary risks.
    • In dangerous situations, staying calm and calling for help can save lives. Appreciate life and cherish every moment.
    • Our heightened emotions after a near-death experience don't just disappear. Instead, we may feel a sense of euphoria and resilience. Our ability to shift from fear to joy highlights the human mind's natural inclination to find meaning and positivity in even the most terrifying situations.
    • Our brain categorizes intense emotions like terror and relief together, making it easy to switch between them. While relief can be rewarding, it may also leave an unpleasant aftertaste and come in two distinct forms.
    • Always research passport requirements before traveling to avoid mishaps like Kate's. Also, understand that emotional responses to stressful situations can differ based on the nature of the stress, which can impact memory and future responses.
    • Embracing pessimism and considering negative outcomes can be a functional way to manage expectations while waiting for news, and can be especially useful during times of crisis, like the current pandemic.
    • Adopt an optimistic attitude, remind yourself of your strengths, and engage in activities that distract you while waiting. Cultivating resilience and coping skills can help you navigate uncertainty with greater ease.
    • Subtitle: Understanding the Anxiety and Uncertainty of Waiting for High-Stakes Results  Waiting for important results can be stressful and unpredictable. Researchers are studying how California law students manage this anxiety and uncertainty, which could offer valuable insights for anyone facing a long wait time.
    • Balancing optimism and pessimism can help manage waiting. Stay positive at the beginning, but brace for the worst close to the moment of truth. Regaining control can ease the discomfort of waiting.
    • Being optimistic and prepared ahead of time can help in times of waiting and uncertainty. Identifying potential benefits and finding ways to cope can lead to better outcomes.
    • Engaging in absorbing activities can significantly improve mental health during quarantine. Find activities that are challenging and time-consuming to achieve a state of flow and gain a sense of control during difficult times.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    The Psychology of Waiting and the Joy of Relief

    The experience of waiting for relief can be agonizing, but the feeling of relief itself can bring a surge of joy and elation. In this episode of Hidden Brain, we explore the psychology of waiting and the strange things that happen in our minds when we experience relief. Through the story of a tour guide in South Africa, we learn about the thrill of being close to wild animals and the sense of vulnerability it can create. Ultimately, the tour guide's experience highlights how our perception of safety can either enhance or detract from our enjoyment of an experience. As we wait for the pandemic to end and life to return to normalcy, accepting the reality of the situation while finding moments of joy and gratitude can help us cope with the agony of waiting.

    Staying Safe on Safari: The Importance of Adhering to Safety Protocols.

    When observing wild animals on safari, it's important to adhere to safety protocols, such as turning off the vehicle engine, to avoid drawing attention to oneself. Despite feeling safe watching the lions play, the tourists were reminded of the danger they were in when the vehicle wouldn't start. The lions' behavior changed, and they went from cute to intimidating, reminding the tourists of their status as apex predators. It's important to respect the power of the animals and not to take unnecessary risks, even if they seem harmless at first.

    A Terrifying Incident During a Safari Trip

    A safari trip turned into a nightmare when a group of tourists found themselves surrounded by lions, inching toward them slowly. Although they were scared out of their minds, they tried to stay calm, and one person urged the driver to radio for help. The other Land Rover arrived, and the drivers attached a tow rope between them. Just as they were about to move, the rope snapped, and the lions sprang towards them. Miraculously, they didn't attack anyone but ran off with the rope. This near-death experience left the group with a newfound appreciation for life. They went from intense fear to sheer euphoria within seconds and felt an indescribable joy at being alive.

    The Science Behind Our Emotional Responses to Near-Death Experiences

    Why do our emotions shift from pure terror to euphoria after a near brush with death? Psychologist Kate Sweeny explains that our physical systems remain on alert after a threat, leaving us with heightened emotions that don't just dissipate. Instead, we experience a sense of exhilaration and euphoria after surviving the danger. This phenomenon is exemplified by the tourists who went from fearing for their lives during a lion encounter to laughing and sharing the experience over dinner. Our ability to shift from fear to joy also highlights the resilience of the human mind and our natural inclination to find meaning and positivity in even the most terrifying experiences.

    The Dual Nature of Relief - From Terror to Euphoria

    Intense terror and relief are both high arousal emotions that our brain categorizes together. Switching from one to the other is relatively easy, which may explain why people often shift quickly from terror to euphoria. However, the euphoria of relief is tinged with dread and often leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. This form of relief is meant to be rewarding and draws attention to the possibility that things could have gone differently. There are two types of relief - 'whew, that was close' and 'finally, thank heavens.' The latter has a different psychological signature and is associated with planning and anticipation, like the relief felt by Kate when her husband's passport was finally confirmed before their trip to Iceland.

    The Importance of Researching Passport Requirements and Understanding Emotional Responses to Stressful Experiences.

    Kate's passport mishap highlights the importance of researching passport requirements before traveling, as many countries require validity beyond the end of the trip. Despite finding a solution after a long and exhausting process, Kate's relief was different from previous experiences due to the brain's differing mechanisms for coping with close calls versus prolonged stress. This raises questions about how emotional responses to stressful experiences can impact memory and future responses. Always double-check passport requirements to avoid a similar situation and understand how emotions can differ based on the nature of the stress experienced.

    The Benefits of Preparing for the Worst

    Volunteers who experienced a near miss in a study on completing a task felt relief and spent time afterwards ruminating on how to avoid similar situations. Those who completed the task felt uncomfortable beforehand, but quickly moved on afterwards, an evolutionary adaptation. Bracing for the worst by embracing pessimism and considering negative outcomes can be a functional way to manage expectations while waiting for news. In the midst of the pandemic, many people have become experts in this kind of waiting.

    Strategies for Coping with the Stress of Waiting

    Waiting for uncertain outcomes can be distressing and anxiety-inducing, but there are strategies one can adopt to wait well. Psychologist Kate Sweeny's personal experience of waiting for a job opportunity has led her to study this phenomenon. According to Sweeny, those who cope well with waiting tend to adopt an optimistic attitude, remind themselves of their strengths, and engage in activities that help them take their mind off the waiting period. On the other hand, those who struggle with waiting tend to ruminate about worst-case scenarios and experience frequent negative thoughts and feelings. Sweeny's findings suggest that cultivating resilience and coping skills can help individuals deal with the stress of waiting and navigate uncertainty with greater ease.

    Understanding the Anxiety and Uncertainty of Waiting for High-Stakes Results Key Takeaway: Waiting for important results can be stressful and unpredictable. Researchers are studying how California law students manage this anxiety and uncertainty, which could offer valuable insights for anyone facing a long wait time.

    Waiting can be a torturous experience, especially when it involves high stakes such as waiting for exam results that determine one's future. It is also difficult to study as waiting periods are often temporary and unpredictable. However, researchers have identified California law students waiting for bar exam results as a practical group to study. The research aims to understand the shape of waiting periods and how people manage the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with waiting. While waiting is a universal experience, there is little research on how to manage this anxiety, making this study all the more significant.

    The Art of Waiting: Balancing Optimism and Pessimism

    Waiting is hardest at the beginning and the end, and a little easier in the middle. Optimism prepares you for waiting, but pessimism prepares you for bad news. Those who tend to be optimistic in their day-to-day lives are more comfortable with the uncertainty of waiting. However, being overly optimistic during waiting can lead to shattering distress and disappointment if the outcome is not what was expected. It is important to balance the trade-offs of distress while waiting or distress after by timing your emotional response. Bracing for the worst is good close to the moment of truth, while staying positive and optimistic at the beginning of the wait can buy a buffer from bad news and leave room for elation over good news. Waiting is hard because of the combination of not knowing what's coming, being uncertain, and not having control, so finding ways to regain control can make waiting feel more manageable.

    Planning and Finding Silver Linings for Coping with Uncertainty

    Preparing for bad news with a plan can help alleviate the feeling of lack of control, and finding silver linings in advance can lead to better coping strategies. Kate Sweeny's research shows that even in uncertain situations, it is possible to identify potential benefits, such as appreciating life or being a role model for others. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, waiting is particularly challenging due to its open-ended nature and the disruption to daily life. However, early data shows that people are finding ways to cope. Overall, being planful, optimistic at the front end of waiting, and prepared for worst-case scenarios can lead to better outcomes.

    The Benefits of Finding Flow During Quarantine

    To improve wellbeing during quarantine, finding a state of flow through engaging activities was found to be the most helpful strategy. Being fully absorbed in a challenging activity that gets you out of your head and helps time pass quickly can lead to significant improvements in mental health. The key to achieving flow is to find an activity that is so engaging that its time-consuming nature is forgotten. Rather than feeling powerless during a pandemic, it's important to understand that certain things are outside of our control, but we can always change how we respond. A shift in perspective and being curious about why we feel the way we do can help power us through difficult times.

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