How to Not Freak Out When Waiting for Test Results

Even routine medical testing can create a lot of anxiety. Here’s how to stay calm.

Photo: Yulia Reznikov/Getty Images

As access to testing has increased and roughly 750,000 Americans per day line up for a Covid-19 test, wait times for results have climbed up to two weeks in many places — and more people than ever may be experiencing test result anxiety, experts say.

Even before the pandemic, plenty of studies have found that waiting for medical test results can cause psychological stress. In a 2017 study evaluating emotional state among patients waiting for imaging results, 45% of respondents reported experiencing an emotional change as a result of waiting for testing results. Among those respondents reporting an emotional change, 85% reported feeling anxiety.

Pamela Ressler, a nurse and the founder of Stress Resources, an organization that helps individuals build resiliency, started her company after noticing an increase in stress levels among her patients and colleagues after September 11, 2001. Ressler has previously written about how to manage “scanxiety,” which she describes as the anxiety, worry, and fear that accompany the waiting period before and after a medical test.

In Ressler’s experience, increased anxiety in response to medical testing is common. “Even routine medical testing can create a lot of anxiety for many of us,” she explains. “Why is that? The first reason is that we perceive any kind of testing as a threat, and our body’s stress response hasn’t evolved to differentiate between psychological stressors. So, the body doesn’t distinguish enough between a blood test and more serious physical stressors.”

“In many ways, we still have caveman brains. We don’t want to starve to death, so we imagine the worst outcome and try to prepare for that.”

We’re also just getting more tests, with more data points within the results, than ever. “As we’ve gained more technology, we don’t really understand what that testing will lead to or mean in our lives. A hundred years ago, there weren’t the blood tests that there are, we didn’t have X-rays. So, there is still a fear of the unknown and what we do when we get a finding. What does it mean? Does it have any relevance? I think humans still struggle with that,” Ressler says. This uncertainty may be heightened now, as scientists are still working to understand the full impact Covid-19 has on the body.

Barbara Cox, PhD, a psychologist who often works with patients experiencing medical-related anxiety, also believes that social media and constant news coverage of the pandemic play a role. “We live in a 24-hour news cycle. Your brain is constantly being bombarded with news that puts you into high alert,” she explains.

Finally, Ressler points to the trend of wearable health-tracking tech: “One thing that has come into existence in the last five to seven years is the availability of wearable technology that gives us a lot of information about our bodies. For instance, wearing a smartwatch can actually give a person pretty rudimentary data about heart performance. But as a layperson, you don’t necessarily know how to interpret that data,” she says.

Realize you can’t control the outcome, but you can control your reaction

Whether you’re waiting for the results of a Covid-19 test or some other kind of medical test or scan, how can you mitigate the anxiety? For many, a natural inclination is to anticipate the worst-case scenario. “Imagining the worst is a protective mechanism,” Cox explains. “In many ways, we still have caveman brains. We don’t want to starve to death, so we imagine the worst outcome and try to prepare for that,” she says. However, picturing the worst-case scenario may not be a productive way to cope with the test results’ waiting period. “The doom-and-gloom response activates the body’s flight-or-fight response, which unleashes a stress reaction that is not good for your body,” Cox advises. “It’s better to imagine a positive outcome.” Ressler agrees. “When you imagine the worst-case scenario, you’re at the mercy of waiting for a phone call or for the results to appear in the patient portal,” she says.

Instead, Ressler counsels patients to realize that although they may not be able to control the results of their test, they can control how they deal with the waiting time and the ultimate result. “It’s important to understand that whatever it is, you’ll be able to cope with it. Step back from thinking you can control an outcome, but realize you can control your feelings around testing,” she explains.

One exercise Ressler gives her patients is setting boundaries around the anxieties they’re feeling. “I tell my clients to give themselves a 10-minute worry block every day,” Ressler says. “During those 10 minutes, they should take a Post-it Note and write down everything that they’re worried about, and then step away.” Ressler says this exercise is helpful because people are often holding onto all of that worry in silence, and writing it down is a way of releasing it. “It allows an individual to control the experience around the testing versus trying to control what the outcome of the test will be, which is beyond their control,” she says.

Other ways to cope: Look for healthy soothing activities, Cox suggests. “Figure out what activity is comforting for you. It may be knitting or listening to music.”

Movement is calming to the mind

Ressler also recommends getting physical. “It can feel really scary when you’re waiting for results and you’re just stuck with your own thoughts. I advise clients to take a walk or engage in some other kind of repetitive movement. Movement is calming to the body as well as the mind, and it’s more effective than trying to sit with your thoughts or push them away,” she says.

Besides that, Ressler recommends breathing techniques that can be used during periods of anxiety. “You really feel anxiety in the body,” she says. “If you can have a few tools that you’ve practiced when things aren’t that stressful, they’re very effective in taking down the heart rate, helping you feel a little more in control when you feel your anxiety is becoming overwhelming.”

Breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, exhale for eight counts. After three repetitions, return to normal breathing for a couple breaths, then repeat as necessary.

One of the techniques Ressler prescribes is diaphragmatic breathing. As you inhale, count very slowly up to four; on the exhale, count slowly back down to one. This should be repeated several times.

Here’s another exercise, which Ressler refers to as rescue breathing: Breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, exhale for eight counts. After three repetitions, return to normal breathing for a couple breaths, then repeat as necessary. She recommends this as a way to bring about quick relaxation. It’s also an effective method to use when you’re having a difficult time getting to sleep.

Both Ressler and Cox think the medical profession has a role to play in reducing patient anxiety. “When you’re waiting, your mind conjures up the absolute worst things,” Ressler says. “We have to do a better job in medicine to make those results available quicker and to provide a better interpretation of what they mean. Because there’s no reason why somebody should have to wait a whole week or more for their results from certain tests, and we’re not great with that follow-up.”

Cox advises her clients to treat evaluating a doctor the same way they might evaluate an employer during a job interview. “Think about whether they have the type of bedside manner that works for you, particularly if you’re prone to anxiety. You do have a choice, and you should choose a doctor who will work with you and match your temperament,” she says.

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