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Coping While You Wait For Medical Test Results

By HERWriter
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Waiting for the weekend to come or a long-desired vacation can bring excitement, but what happens when you’re waiting for something nerve-racking, like medical test results and a potential diagnosis?

Experts explore the connection between fearing the unknown (which can happen when you’re waiting for medical test results), and provide tips for how you can keep positive in a potentially negative situation.

Nerina Garcia-Arcement, a licensed clinical psychologist and a clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine, said in an email that fearing the unknown is something we all experience at some point in life.

“Fear of the unknown (especially when [the] outcome can be negative) is a normal human reaction,” Garcia-Arcement said. “That is why many avoid going to the doctor to begin with. They fear hearing that they are ill or whatever they imagine.”

Besides the common fear and anxiety that can be associated with waiting for medical test results, there are other emotions and thoughts that people can experience.

“Other common emotions are numbness ... worry, sadness and guilt (that they didn't go sooner and now might be ill) and concern about how this might impact their lives, plans and families,” Garcia-Arcement said.

So now that you’re waiting for medical test results, how can you cope with some of these negative emotions you may be experiencing?

“[The] best way is to acknowledge what they are feeling, normalize it/know that it is normal to feel that way, and then use healthy coping strategies to deal with what they are feeling,” Garcia-Arcement said. “If they are anxious and worried, do breathing exercises, distract themselves with activities and people they enjoy, do visualization exercises or any other type of self-care activity that will help them ‘get through’ until they receive their diagnosis.”

If you’re almost positive that the medical test results you’re waiting for will lead to a diagnosis of some kind, there are some ways you can prepare yourself for this potentially devastating situation.

“I have my patients imagine worst case [scenarios],” Garcia-Arcement said. “It is often not as bad as they imagine, and this helps them create a plan in case they do get negative results.”

She also suggests gathering support from family and friends, as well as finding out information about a potential diagnosis to feel empowered.

“Illness reminds us that we are vulnerable and truly dependent upon our bodies,” Garcia-Arcement said. “This can make us feel scared and powerless. Doing things that remind us that we are in concern or have some control can help reduce distress.”

Elissa Ashwood, the creator of the website www.33dresses.com/ is a breast cancer survivor who is currently going through treatment. She also used to be a consultant for McKinsey.

“A cancer diagnosis takes weeks and months to fully unfold, so it's really easy to spend all that time waiting,” Ashwood said in an email.

Instead of focusing on the waiting, she has three main tips for people who are waiting on a final diagnosis.

1) “Think like a top management consultant,” Ashwood said. “Consultants come up with their best answer today based on all the facts, and they run with THAT answer until the next update. So on Day 1, they use the Day 1 answer. And they don't worry that they don't yet know the week 1 answer or the last day answer yet. This way they are empowered by having a working answer at all times.”

“With cancer, I focused on the answer I had,” she added. “It's very empowering to realize that you have an answer, that you aren't really waiting for anything. Once you get an update, you'll have a new answer, but that doesn't mean you don't have an answer now.”

2) “I also looked at the cancer treatment in chapters, and stayed focused on what I could do for each chapter,” Ashwood said. “I set up my client work to be completed during the periods that I knew I would not be having surgery or treatment.”

3) “Live your life no matter what the diagnosis is,” Ashwood said. “Cancer is not my life, I have life over cancer. For example, I'm currently having 33 radiation treatments, and I decided I would wear 33 dresses to these treatments to give me something to look forward to. It's the least cancer-y thing, and it's given me a huge boost, not to mention encouraging others.”

Her 26th radiation treatment was June 5, and her last one is on June 15, where she’ll be giving away a wedding dress.

Nancy Irwin, a therapist and clinical hypnotist, has six suggestions for people who are waiting for test results to come back.

1) “The best way to get through that agony is to focus on others,” Irwin said. “It is the opposite of fixating on yourself, for you have done everything you can and now it is time to release. So do something for others. The further from ‘you’ it is, the better. Go serve at a soup kitchen, deliver food to AIDS patients, clean up the environment, etc. Or go visit an elderly person who is lonely. Selfless giving will allow you to release like nothing else can.”

2) “Physical exertion helps, as well. Work out, play tennis with a friend, T-ball with your kid, etc.”

3) “Change something in your environment if you can. Rearrange the furniture, paint a room, reline your drawers. This can give you a fresh perspective and lift your spirits, giving you something that you can control at this time.”

4) “Get a massage or a manicure. Buy yourself some fresh flowers. Nurturing the self at this time goes a long way in calming you.”

5) “Watch comedies. You are almost guaranteed to get your mind off yourself for a few moments when you are laughing.”

6) “And remember to focus on ‘What if everything is really OK?’ vs. the negative ‘what ifs.’”

How have you coped with waiting for medical test results to come back? If you thought you would get negative results, how did you prepare for that?


Garcia-Arcement, Nerina. Email interview. June 5, 2012.

Ashwood, Elissa. Email interview. June 5, 2012.

Irwin, Nancy. Email interview. June 5, 2012.

Reviewed June 6, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment4 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

I appreciate the practical advice, like serving others to take my mind off myself. I also really like what a previous commenter said: “I am ready and willing to do whatever I must to be well.” That is a good mantra for this period of waiting.

Here are a few other ideas I’ve found helpful:
1. Listen to music I liked when I was a child/teen.
2. Meet up with a friend who doesn’t know about my medical issues so I can enjoy a totally unrelated conversation.
3. Constantly make new plans, small and large, for later today, tomorrow, next week, etc.
4. Work on a project that requires a lot of mental focus.
5. Listen to guided meditation recordings.

September 22, 2018 - 6:28pm
EmpowHER Guest

Good advice, still easier said than done. But I am trying. Mostly I try to remind myself that being upset all the time can actually make you ill, and, no matter what the answer is, I am ready and willing to do whatever I must to be well. And it really does make me ill just to think about it. The moment my doctor called me and told me I needed to come in to discuss my labs I felt literally sick to my stomach and have had bouts of it every since that moment. I know that's not good for me so I have to focus on other things as often as I can. I also try to think about the other, less traumatic things my problem could turn out to be. Still, the fears seep in, especially when I am alone or at night. I am a mother of school age children and I am not ready to check out! Like I said, all good advice here, but easier said than done ;) still, I'll give it a try.

April 4, 2016 - 11:51am
EmpowHER Guest

Thank you for the article. Very useful to read advice from those who have been there.

August 21, 2013 - 3:25am
EmpowHER Guest

Thanks, this is so helpful! I'm currently waiting for some results and I'm trying not to do what I did the last time I was waiting which was to get totally depressed and down and stressed. That is why I am researching ways to handle things differently this time around!

June 5, 2013 - 2:10pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.