Coping with waiting for bad news
February 22, 2012 7:21 PM   Subscribe

How to cope with anxiety while waiting for bad news, especially when you don't know when the bad news is coming.

I'm waiting for a legal decision to be handed down that could end in a very large fine or worse, jail time. This is for a white collar crime that is the result of what amounts to a paperwork mistake on my part. (I have a lawyer.) I'm being purposely vague on details, but just know that a) there will be a punishment - monetary or worse and b) I don't know when it will happen (could be weeks or months). Jail time is a very real possibility and not my anxiety jumping to the worst conclusion.

I'm a goody-goody type who's never been in trouble. I suffer from a decades-long anxiety disorder that has been so bad in the past that it's kept me housebound and unemployed, though I've been stable and employed for the past year.

However, this situation triggers my fears - the unknown, long anticipation and a possibility of incarceration (I'm so claustrophobic that I avoid airplanes and elevators). I have a therapist, but I need additional coping skills. My anxiety manifests very physically (to the point that my doctor believes I may have a conversion disorder), and I'm concerned about hurting my body with this stress. Here's what I'm doing already:

-Eating well and frequently (I tend to undereat when I'm anxious)
-Exercising daily (cardio and yoga)
-Seeing my therapist once a week (all my insurance allows)
-Reaching out to my support group (my husband and family)
-Pema Chodron. Lots of Pema.
-I'm not on medication. Part of my anxiety involves medication phobia. I'm working through this in therapy, but not there yet.
-I don't do drugs, but I'll have a drink in the evening, which temporarily can soothe me.

I've been waiting a week so far. Still, I sit twisted in anxiety all day. I can barely sleep. Once I talk/meditate/deep breathe my way through a panic wave, it hits again.

Do you have advice for riding out something like this? What have you done to ease your anxiety in times like this? How did you physically calm your body down? I feel like it will be impossible to wait for this punishment and remain healthy. I'm terrified and would appreciate your best coping advice. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Distraction with something you find absorbing and pleasant. Eg, sitcoms, nature documentaries, books on tape, old-time radio dramas on CD. Pick something like the entire back history of Dr Who and work on getting through the whole series. Listen to a full lecture course on art history on Youtube.

Knit or do origami or similar handsy tasks while your mind is pleasantly occupied.

Do the meditation-like exercise of memorizing long texts - eg poems, songs from Gilbert and Sullivan, songs of Tom Lehrer, lists of monarchs of Europe, whatever.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:34 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Knit. Preferably something complicated, like lace. It will occupy enough of your brain to keep you from a full out panic. If you don't know how, learn.
posted by apparently at 7:35 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is terrible. I'm sorry you are twisting in the wind like this. When I catch myself in a spiral like this, I'll just tell myself, "I can't do anything about this now. I'm going to go do something I CAN do something about." Then I clean the house or something. It doesn't always help, but at least my house will be nice and clean to enjoy when I'm feeling better.

Do you belong to a religious community? I imagine a pastor or rabbi would be happy to listen to you, even if just to unload.

Meditation is a great way to break the worry cycle.

If you have any literary inclinations at all, a great little exercise is trying to write new sentences mimicking the sentence structure of great writers. (i.e. find a passage of Hemingway that you like, then write your own paragraph, using a verb when he uses a verb, using a noun when he uses a noun, adverb for adverb, period for period, etc.) It's difficult to do and engaging.

Along those same lines, sudoku, crosswords, math problems, knitting. I like LobsterMitten's suggestion of memorizing poetry.

Tea with valerian in it might help a little. Keeping to a regular sleep schedule and getting lots of morning light can also help. You might also try exercising more. Doing weights helps me sleep better--I think because my muscles are physically tired.

Good luck.
posted by elizeh at 7:38 PM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

Two things help me:

1. comedies - like frazier.

2. reminding myself that no matter what happens, I can handle it. Even my worse case scenario situations, many of which I know I can't avoid: like my parents will die. Whatever my mind flashes on the most terrible thing, I stop, just take a deep breath and tell myself: Yes, that might happen, and I can survive it. Others have before me who were no smarter or luckier than I. If I'm worried about this, I need to write it down, and then do the work to figure out the best way to prepare for it.

So, if it was that I might go to jail, my fear would be that I couldn't handle jail. My mind might flash on a hundred terrible things, mostly from terrible tv dramas. But I'd start to realize that my fear is just something trying to get my attention, and I would try to accept it, and realize I needed to get some accurate and useful information and advice about how people have successfully navigated jail time. If I was worried that I would never get a job again, I'd try to remind myself that many people - lawyers included - have served their time with their head held high, and then found employment. And I need to tap into the resources that would help me navigate that as well when the time came. If it was shame or anger at my behavior or the situation, I would try to accept that I feel that way, and try darn hard to forgive myself or the universe, because people make mistakes, and crappy things happen to good people.

In short, I'd try to be compassionate and gentle with myself, and befriend my demons - including any of my anxiety and self loathing, knowing that I'll probably have to remind myself 60 times a day to do so. Which is a useful meditation within itself.

Perhaps that's just a long way of saying: Pema.
posted by anitanita at 7:54 PM on February 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

It's simple but I like to go for a walk when I am stressed, preferably while listening to music. I just about always feel better when I return; it puts things in perspective somehow.
posted by mlle valentine at 7:57 PM on February 22, 2012

Do something for someone else. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, etc. Read to seniors in a. Nursing home. Walk shelter dogs. Be of use.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:59 PM on February 22, 2012

Elizeh's first piece of advice was the ONLY thing that helped me during a severe bought with anxiety. You have to think of anxiety as a cycle of fear. Once you allow the tiny fear thoughts to creep into your mind, those fears manifest and grow into bigger, less realistic fears. It's a downward spiral.

Basically, just keep repeating to yourself a secular version of the Serenity Prayer: accept the things you cannot change, and change the things you can. What I mean is, if you cannot change them there is no use sweating them. If you can change them, then act!
posted by Brittanie at 8:13 PM on February 22, 2012

Here's my crazy idea: get a hold of this book. (Disclaimer: I haven't read it as yet.) The author sounds like a "good girl" who got into a bit of trouble and did jail time-- but hey, she came out on the other side and got a book written, so she can't have done too bad. Maybe it'll (a) reassure you as to the worst it might get, or (b) give you hope about "all this will pass."

*shrug* It's an idea. I think it'd be pretty effing hard to think about anything other than "OMG I MIGHT GO TO JAIL ANY TIME NOW." So I think I'd try to educate myself as to what might happen, get preparations for my life taken care of, stuff like that. Take charge of the situation to some degree (as best you can) and work toward preparation rather than dread.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:44 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I will second the book that jenfullmoon recommended - it's a very good read. But don't go there until you know it's a reality for you - otherwise I think it will feed your anxiety. I think the mindfulness techniques you are doing and that others are recommending are your best bet: staying in your present reality rather than getting ahead of yourself. Speaking personally, I know that I'm quite strong in an actual crisis, but the anticipatory period where I don't know what will happen is the worst for me. It sounds like you might be that sort of person as well, in which case know that you do have the strength to handle what will come, once you get there.
posted by judith at 9:10 PM on February 22, 2012

Perhaps it would be helpful for you to prepare things for the possible outcomes - getting your house in order, so that even if the worst happens, you are prepared, can be soothing. Nthing all the meditating/knitting/herbal suggestions, but I also want to recommend Rescue Remedy for the moments when you feel utterly swept away by panic. I think Bach flower remedies sound like utter nonsense, and yet RR has always helped me in times of extremity. Good luck.
posted by thylacinthine at 9:11 PM on February 22, 2012

Try metta meditation, if you aren't already doing it. It is the classic Buddhist antidote to fear.
posted by Coventry at 1:42 AM on February 23, 2012

Separate this into stages; you haven't been convicted yet, right? First, you must find out whether you are guilty of a crime or not. If this doesn't look like intent or malice aforethought was involved, your outcome may well be very different from your fears.

Sentencing is a secondary phase. Once guilt or no guilt has been determined, then the punishment will be recommended. Being a "goody-goody" has an upside, you know?

I know they always pound in "worst case" scenarios about what could conceivably happen to you, but they rarely materialize like that. This isn't Perry Mason; life isn't black or white.

Breathe in, breathe out. Clean out a closet you've been procrastinating about. Touch every piece of clothing and every scrap of paper in it and make a decision about it. Take two or three days, or a week. Just be very systematic and take your time.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:06 AM on February 23, 2012

I liked the Piper Kerman book too. She spent such a long time time waiting that she had no choice but to get on with her life in between: working, getting engaged, etc. In that situation, my priority would be to try and not let them have any more of my time than my sentence entitled them to.

What I personally have done in times of slamming anxiety and life upheavals was to start writing fiction. Journal writing is fine but it doesn't really take you out of the problem. I started writing porn and moved to detective novels. I chose genre writing because it can be approached step by step: pick a model, break it down and start emulating it. You sound artistic, so maybe you could start a fun and absorbing project-- not necessarily writing, although writing is infinitely portable and costs nothing unlike, say oil painting.

Crossword puzzles or other lateral-thinking games are extremely helpful too, in my experience. I've spent years doing the New York Times crossword every day. At the worst point in my life I read all the forum discussions as well.
posted by BibiRose at 9:15 AM on February 23, 2012

There are great strategies for distraction and meditation in this thread.

I have this anxiety thing, too, where I think (consciously or unconsciously) that by worrying about bad things coming down the pike, that I'm somehow preparing myself, that I'm going to make the bad outcome be better somehow, or that I'll somehow be better able to handle it, because I've spent all this time dwelling on it—but I think this is fallacious.

A little mental trick that has helped me just a little is to imagine that I am my Future Self, in the Worst Case Scenario. As I, my Future Self, look back upon my Today's Self, is my Future Self going to say, "Gee, I sure wish Today's Self had worried more about this"???

Heck, no. Future Self would probably wish that Today's Self had put the worry aside, and tried to enjoy life a bit.

In stressful times, really thinking through this explicitly has helped me lighten up a little, laugh indulgently at myself and my irrational habits of thought, and take it all a little less seriously.

It also helps me a little bit to realize that Future Self will in fact survive this, and I just need to put a little faith in Future Self's strengths. (I don't know why it's helpful to compartmentalize into Today's Self and Future Self, either, but it does.)

Best of luck to you. I'm sorry that you're struggling with this, but whatever happens, remember, you will get through it and come out the other side.
posted by BrashTech at 11:16 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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