California rancher Dan Macon knows firsthand that waiting can be an excruciating experience. As a small-scale sheep rancher in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, he has spent a lot of time waiting for rain during the state’s ongoing drought. Macon’s livelihood is tied to the land and particularly to water: a vital ingredient in creating the unique grasslands his animals depend on. Good-natured and thoughtful, he waits for rain and tries to get through with, as he puts it, a mix of “humor and commiseration.”

Kate Sweeny, an associate professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, studies the kind of waiting that Macon is faced with—that is, waiting for uncertain news. As Sweeny writes, waiting for things that we can generally depend on like getting a table a restaurant is vastly different from waiting for uncertain and unchangeable news such as a medical diagnosis.

Sweeny and her colleagues have found that while waiting for uncertain news, people often focus on preparing—emotionally and logistically—for any possible outcome. People tend to shift between optimism and pessimism, and both states can help increase readiness. Optimism engenders people to take preparative, proactive actions, and pessimism helps people to prepare by protecting themselves psychologically from worst-case scenarios. Sweeny’s research also addresses how people might “wait better” by distracting themselves, managing expectations, and viewing the situation from different perspectives.

Although Sweeny’s work has focuses on individual experiences of waiting for things with definitive outcomes, like difficult medical diagnoses or news of a job, she also thinks her research findings would also extend to waiting for a resolution to any stressful uncertainty, like waiting for rain during a drought. The differences between waiting for something that directly impacts an individual and something like drought that, for many, has more indirect impacts are likely to be in the ease with which people can distract themselves and the ways they manage their expectations. As she said in an interview:

It is easier to distract with something distant and abstract than with something imminent and personal. We consistently find that when a clear outcome is far in the future, or not expected at all, people tend to embrace optimism rather than bracing for the worst.

In other words, the less personalized the experience, the more optimistic folks are likely to be about the outcome. In the case of drought, it may be harder for farmers, ranchers, and others whose livelihoods are personally impacted to remain hopeful.

Josh Reynolds, a veteran and licensed mental health counselor who works with military members and their families, is also well-versed in waiting. Every day, he sees people who are waiting for uncertain news about deployments or extended periods of combat: waiting is simply a part of military life. Like Sweeny, he finds people tend to prepare and keep busy while waiting for uncertain news. As he said in an interview, he finds waiting to be a paradoxical experience:

Waiting can be deeply unwelcome, and many of us resist it. We do things to regain a sense of control and avoid the discomfort of waiting. And while distracting ourselves can be helpful, it can also get in the way of experiencing and expressing the anxiety and grief of waiting, which may ultimately be counterproductive.

In other words, sometimes we distract ourselves so completely that we ignore underlying feelings that may arise in unhelpful ways.

One of the more challenging aspects of understanding the role waiting plays in something like drought is how collective emotions—common feelings that arise for groups of people as a result of shared experience—come into play. Sweeny says that there is little research that addresses waiting beyond the individual, even into scenarios like a family system dealing with a medical situation.

Because drought impacts many people at a time, it’s possible that conflict can arise when a group of people use different strategies to cope with waiting. For instance, when a recent headline indicated that southern California may see a great deal of rain in the next couple of months, NASA and University of California, Irvine scientist Jay Famiglietti quickly pointed out that the article was, from his perspective, overly optimistic. These kinds of differences in framing are common to drought and other environmental issues like climate change. Sweeny notes that these challenges may be further exacerbated by the fact that different people are differently motivated by optimistic or pessimistic messages. For example, encouraging pessimists to “just think positively” can actually make them “feel worse and prepare less.”

At the same time, waiting together can be comforting. As Sweeny says, there may be more space for collective conversations with something like drought that affects a broad group of people rather than an individual. Reynolds also believes there can be something to be gained in putting the planning and future aside because “sharing the experience of waiting can allow us to connect with others and develop stronger community support systems.” Dan Macon, who has contributed to many community workshops and started a Facebook group for ranchers impacted by the drought, agrees: “Waiting for it to rain is easier when you know other people are waiting along with you.”

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Image Credit: Justin Wages

About The Author

Faith Kearns
Scientist and communicator, California Institute for Water Resources of UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Faith Kearns is a scientist and communicator with the California Institute for Water Resources of the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. She has worked on topics ranging from urban stream ecology to wildfires to citizen science and in non-profit, government, and academic organizations.