How to cope with waiting for medical test results

Jane Murphy 4 December 2021

It’s natural to feel stressed during the countdown to medical results. Here’s how to manage your anxiety and get on with your life while you play the waiting game…
 

Not so long ago, I had a couple of biopsies, which—thankfully—turned out to be benign. But for those ten long days while I was waiting for the results, I was a nervous wreck, counting down the minutes until the phone call that could potentially change my life.

I imagined the worst possible outcome. I tried to reassure myself. I asked my husband and friends for reassurance. I replayed the hospital appointment over and over in my mind, looking for clues in anything the medical staff had said or done.

I googled symptoms—real and imagined—which led me down many a doom-laden “internet hole”, only serving to fuel my anxiety further. Frankly, I could have handled it better.

Don’t be hard on yourself

We all cope differently in times of stress. Some people are just better able to keep things in perspective and shelve their concerns until they know exactly what they're dealing with. A 2017 US study of people waiting for scan results found that just under half reported a “change in emotional state”—and 85 per cent of this group said they were anxious.

So what can you do if, like me, you fall into the “anxious” group? First and foremost, try to accept that what you're facing here is a complete unknown over which you currently have no control. Nothing you do during this waiting period will affect the outcome. When you get the results and are dealing with facts rather than thoughts, you'll be able to make any necessary decisions and move forward.

It's also important to acknowledge that you're protecting your future wellbeing by getting your health checked out. There may well be nothing at all to worry about. But if you do require further tests or treatment, you've already taken the most important step towards getting everything sorted out.

"It's also important to acknowledge that you're protecting your future wellbeing by getting your health checked out"

Do check the small stuff

While it’s advisable to put the whole thing from your mind as much as you can—more on that in a moment—do make sure you know how and when you're likely to receive the results, and double-check that your GP or clinic has up-to-date contact details for you.

If you're expecting a phone call, for example, check which number you'll be called on and at approximately what time. If you have an in-person appointment, check exactly where you need to go and plan your journey in advance. It sounds obvious—but it's these all-important details that tend to slip through the net, particularly when we're under stress.

Do try to distract yourself

Anxiety is a perfectly natural and valid response in this situation. In fact, according to the charity Breast Cancer Now, some people say waiting for test results is the most worrying part of the entire process, regardless of the outcome.

So your main task during this waiting period is to manage your anxiety. One way to do this is to distract yourself as much as possible. Sticking to your normal routine is usually the best option. Even if you don't much feel like going to work or mixing with other people, concentrating on other tasks and conversations will often take your mind off your worries.

But be kind to yourself, too. Try to do things that make you happy: speak to upbeat friends, curl up in front of your favourite TV show or go for a nice long walk. Being physically active gives your brain something else to focus on and releases the feelgood hormone cortisol, which helps lower stress and anxiety levels.

Some people find that meditation, yoga or calming breathing exercises are particularly beneficial at this time. Anxiety UK has an excellent free breathing and anxiety guide.

Don’t consult “Dr Google”

It's all too easy to start googling symptoms and potential outcomes every time a scary new thought pops into your head. But remember, whatever information you find online won't be specific to your situation and could well be inaccurate or misleading.

Unmoderated message boards are the worst offenders. But even trusted sources, such as charities and the NHS website, can leave you feeling more confused and upset—particularly if you end up consuming every last detail about a health condition you may not even have. Many charities have telephone helplines, often staffed by trained medics, who can answer any general questions you may have, put things in perspective and suggest ways to manage your anxiety. So try giving them a call instead.

Ultimately, it may feel like this waiting game will last forever. But the time will pass and you’ll soon find out what (if anything) needs to happen next. Onwards!

Read more: Why resting your brain is so important

Read more: How to boost your lung power

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