Stress coping mechanisms may be ineffective

Psych ResearchOn October 12, the psychology journal, “Emotion” published associate psychology professor Kate Sweeny’s newest research on stress. Sweeny and her research team have been devoted to studying stress and the effectiveness of certain coping mechanisms for the past few years.

Sweeny explained how her research stands to challenge what is previously thought about when dealing with stress. “Surprisingly, we know very little about how people cope with the particular type of stress associated with waiting for uncertain news. My research suggests that unlike coping with other kinds of stress, people are quite ill-equipped to deal with uncertainty. We have lots of psychological resources ready to use when something bad happens to us, but we don’t seem to have the same set of effective coping strategies when we’re waiting to learn our fate.”

Her original experiment began with 50 law school graduates whom she examined their stress experience before and after taking the California bar exam. She compared their levels of anxiety at different points of time, evaluating how different kinds of people — optimistic versus pessimistic — dealt with the waiting period and how this changed depending on the reception of positive versus negative news.

In previous articles that preceded this month’s issue, Sweeny’s research team sought to determine whether waiting is truly the hardest part. Her work has continued to challenge her research as well as delve deeper into other aspects of stress evaluation.

In her article “Two Definitions of Waiting Well,” Sweeny hoped to determine whether the graduates taking the bar could reduce their stress levels during the waiting period prior to the release of results. In addition, she also evaluated how the students dealt with good and bad news, as well as the coping mechanisms they used.

Through her research, she found that in spite of stress-coping techniques, test takers were not able to change their levels of distress. Additionally, optimistic individuals were better at coping with “waiting” stress but did not cope well with receiving poor news on their exam results. They were also not as satisfied with passing the bar as those individuals with a slightly more pessimistic personality. Participants with a more pessimistic outlook were also those who felt more burdened by the wait and anticipation.

Moreover, the same individuals also coped better with negative news. In light of Sweeny’s research, the stress and chaos can either come during the wait period or later. This work, however, is not limited to law students, as her research team has expanded to conduct a number of studies on other populations.

Sweeny is currently working on a study of women undergoing biopsies. In this case, the waiting period to find out their diagnosis is one week. Sweeny explains that previous research displays that a negative diagnosis is actually less stressful than the stress of waiting one’s results. She is interested in finding ways to “intervene to improve their experience.”  When asked about future research plans her team has been looking into, Sweeny answered, “The big question still to be answered is how we can help people to wait better. We’ve run one study looking at the effect of mindfulness meditation during waiting periods, which produced some encouraging results, and we’re planning other studies that will try a variety of interventions to reduce distress as people wait.”

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