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Anticipatory anxiety: What it is and how to overcome it

Right now, 40 million Americans over the age of 18 are affected by anxiety — a staggering 18 percent of the country’s population.

This unseen illness affects more people than you know.

One such type of anxiety is called Anticipatory Anxiety. And although not technically considered an official anxiety disorder, it is nevertheless problematic.

If you’ve found yourself feeling fearful about an imagined future situation over an extended period of time, then you might be suffering from anticipatory anxiety.

In this article, we’ll talk about everything you need to know about anticipatory anxiety and the ways you can learn to cope with it.

What is anticipatory anxiety?

Anticipatory anxiety is a normal human emotion.

In fact, any number of human experiences can cause you to feel anxious about something that is happening in the future.

We usually feel anticipatory anxiety when we’re about to experience major life events like a public speaking task or any significant activity with pressure for a good outcome. It can be a first date, an exam, moving to a new place or starting a new job.

But what separates normal from problematic anticipatory anxiety when it becomes a component of a panic disorder or when it lasts weeks or months prior to an event.

Anticipatory anxiety is when your focus becomes unreasonably about catastrophic prediction.

According to AnxietyUK.org, you have problematic anticipatory anxiety if your answer is YES to the following questions:

  • Are you experiencing feelings of tension and anxiety in the build up to an event?
  • Do you have images or negative predictions about what may happen at this event?
  • Do you sometimes avoid events or situations because of the increased anxiety they provoke?

Your thoughts can trigger anticipatory anxiety

Your thoughts and mindset can have a large effect on your behavior.

This applies to anticipatory anxiety, too.

According to clinical mental health counselor Sheryl Ankrom:

“Anticipatory anxiety is closely associated with the way you think. With panic disorder, your thoughts are generally focused on worrying about having a panic attack in a situation that will result in embarrassment, extreme discomfort, a heart attack, or even worse.”

If you have anticipatory anxiety, you’re likely always asking yourself, “what if?”

What if:

  • I don’t pass my exam?
  • I fail my interview?
  • the plane I’m in crashes?
  • my date doesn’t like me?

In truth, these are normal thoughts. But if your anticipatory anxiety stops you from doing things for fear of the outcome, that’s where the problem starts.

Psychology graduate Lisa Fritscher adds:

“Anticipatory anxiety can be extremely life-limiting as you search for ways to avoid the experiences. It can put stress on your personal relationships because you’re distracted and appear self-absorbed.

“You may also find it compromises your ability to function competently at work if you are consistently distracted.”

Symptoms of anticipatory anxiety

When a person experiences anticipatory anxiety, the signs are not only of a physical nature but mental and emotional as well.

The following are symptoms related to anticipatory anxiety:

  • chest pain
  • hyperventilation
  • muscle spasms
  • difficulty in concentrating
  • rumination
  • extreme feelings of apprehension
  • dizziness
  • upset stomach
  • numbness or a tingling sensation
  • cold chills or hot flashes

Emotional side effects of chronic anticipatory anxiety include feelings of anger, hopelessness, confusion, loss of control, irritability, and even guilt. It can also affect your mood negatively.

Anticipatory anxiety may also keep your mind preoccupied with the perceived threat, that it stops you from doing something or from making a decision.

What causes anticipatory anxiety?

Anticipatory mainly comes from fear, which is a natural emotion. But it worsens and intensifies from previous situations that aroused fear.

Think of it as a domino effect. One event caused you to have anxiety or a panic attack. It happened once or twice. And then you fear the panic attack itself.

Here’s another interesting thing:

Few know it, but phobias are actually a result of anticipatory anxiety.

It’s quite obvious, actually. We actively fear our phobia, so we go out of our way to avoid it. From heights, closed space, to flying or swimming.

At its core, anticipatory boils down to a fear of something happening, but most of the time, it’s just in your head.

How to cope with Anticipatory Anxiety

You may never fully get rid of anticipatory anxiety, but there are ways that can help you cope with it. By practicing the following steps, you can alleviate symptoms of anticipatory anxiety or lessen your episodes.

1. Try to get enough sleep.

Sleep can affect our health significantly — not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well. Getting enough rest can help alleviate anticipatory anxiety, and not enough can amplify your symptoms even more.

Lack of sleep helps trigger regions of your brain — the amygdala and the insular cortex, parts of your brain that help process emotions.

This is the reason why people suffering from anxiety can suffer sleep deprivation and difficulty in falling asleep.

As much as possible, prioritize getting enough rest every night. You will see a huge difference in your well-being.

2. Practice relaxation techniques.

One way to also reduce your levels of anticipatory anxiety is by learning and practicing simple relaxation techniques. Not only that but by doing so, you can also ease panic attacks and other anxiety disorders.

Yoga and meditation can be of huge help. You can also practice simple deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, and even writing on a journal.

Another brilliant relaxation exercise is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). PMR can help alleviate the physical symptoms of anticipatory anxiety by using a series of techniques that will elicit a reverse version of the fight-or-flight response – a relaxation response that induces lower heart rate, bodily tension and helps calms the mind.

3. Interrupt your negative thoughts with positive ones.

When you start feeling like your anxiety is spiraling out of control, try replacing your negative thoughts with positive ones.

Instead of focusing on everything that could go wrong, focus on the one thing that can go right instead. Find the positive in any negative situation. Don’t focus on all the things you will dislike or hate.

Srini Pillay, M.D. calls it, “emotion interrupt:”

“Rather than thinking of fears as one-time events, think of them as landslides. And when you do, simply interrupt the anticipatory fear with a random positive thought.

If you can’t think of a thought in time, keep some positive images near you, so that you can look at then, or keep some positive music near you.

This almost always works. You don’t have to wait for the end of the “anticipation”. End it with interrupting.”

Find one thing that you will love. Look for the positive in any perceived negative outcome. Keep your harsh thoughts away by thinking about the good stuff instead.

4. Be realistic.

Oftentimes, anticipatory anxiety can give you unreasonable thoughts. But try asking yourself, are these thoughts actually realistic? More often than not, things will not go as badly as you expect them to be.

Is it real? Or is it just imagined?

Rationalize your feelings of fear. Find any silver lining from the situation. See what you can learn from it and what you can take away instead of focusing on all the things you will lose.

5. Get to the bottom of it.

This irrational feeling of fear can sometimes come from past trauma or an instance from your past when you failed.

There is always a root to your anxiety. Find it, take note of it, and try to understand why your first response is to think negatively.

What is it really that is bothering you? What triggered it? Get to the bottom of it so that you can begin to understand the situation and assess your future steps.

6. Preparation is key.

Anticipatory anxiety can oftentimes come from a lack of preparation. You fear the outcome because you don’t feel prepared enough or that you have no control over the situation.

So here’s what you should do: figure out how you’ll take care of yourself.

NOW READ: 11 anxiety quotes from famous people proving you’re not alone when you experience this feeling

If you have an upcoming job interview, do your best to go fully prepared so that you feel more confident. Study well for an exam. Do your research about the place you are traveling to. What will you do if you get lost?

Leave no stone unturned by doing everything you can possibly do to be fully prepared. This will give you the best peace of mind.

7. Stop over analyzing.

Overthinking just worsens your anxiety. Preparing is one thing, and knowing all the possibilities can get a hold of your anxiety. But too much will give it power.

Sometimes, being too present on your panic or anxiety can be a powerful thing. You begin to think of it a real thing, rather than just a probability.

At a certain point, just stop assessing and obsessing. It’s hard to let it be, but there are certain things that are out of your control.

8. Reward yourself afterward.

After a job interview, why not get a nice lunch? After a date, get some ice cream and watch a nice movie. You can go to the extreme and award yourself for going through something uncomfortable.

What makes you happy? Plan it after a big event.

By having something good to look forward to, you’ll focus less on the anxiety or panic. Not only that, but it will give you more motivation, too.

When to call for professional help

You should seek professional help when your anticipatory anxiety starts affecting your everyday life. If it becomes the major thing in your life, it is time to go and ask for help from experts.

These coping techniques might help you reduce your symptoms, but if you find yourself struggling, you might be better off with the help of professionals. Furthermore, prescription medication has proven to help others with the same disorder to live worry-free lives.

There are evidence-based techniques that counselors or therapists can provide to give you real results. Some of the treatments may include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – A process that can help you identify damaging behaviors and thought processes that are contributing to your anxiety disorder. CBT can help determine and in turn, change your approach to these negative behaviors. Negative thinking is the number one cause of your anticipatory anxiety and CBT may help you manage these symptoms.
  • Panic-focused Psychodynamic Psychotherapy –  Anticipatory anxiety is typically related to panic disorders. As such, Panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy may prove effective in combating this symptom. According to the Psychiatric Times,

“PFPP is based on core psychoanalytical concepts, including the existence and centrality of the unconscious, the relation of defense mechanisms and conflicted wishes to symptom formation, differences between signal and traumatic anxiety, and the importance of transference phenomena.”

Flying anticipatory anxiety

Many people suffer anticipatory anxiety particularly before and during a flight. It’s unreasonable anticipation that a plane may crash.

Some even deliberately avoid flying because of this anxiety.

The Virtual Reality Medical Institution defines it as:

“Flying anticipatory anxiety is a specific flying phobia that is characterized by marked distress prior to the actual flight. The person may begin to feel anxious months before a trip, as they anticipate the actual flight and “things” which may happen take the form of distressing thoughts.”

You might think this anxiety only happens while flying. You’re wrong.

You can also feel anxious just by taking someone to the airport, buying a flight ticket, confirming a flight, or even just seeing planes in person or on TV.

How do you cope with flying anticipatory anxiety?

  • At one point, you thought your flight was safe enough to buy a ticket. Don’t dwell on more than that.
  • Flights crashing happen less than 1%, chances are, you’re safe.
  • Distract your thoughts. For example, when in turbulence, focus on the fact that you have your seat belt on.

Closing Thoughts

Anxiety is one of the most common mental disorders in the world. You are not the only one experiencing it. The best thing you can do is to educate yourself about anxiety. In doing so, you’ll know which steps to take to get better.

If you think you are suffering from anticipatory anxiety, chances are you may be experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder. If you find this affecting your life, your choices, and your actions, it might be time to seek out help from your loved ones or a professional.

The first step might be hard, but admitting that you have a problem is already half of the solution.

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Written by Genefe Navilon

Genefe Navilon is a writer, poet, and blogger. She graduated with a degree in Mass Communications at the University of San Jose Recoletos. Her poetry blog, Letters To The Sea, currently has 18,000 followers. Her work has been published in different websites and poetry book anthologies. She divides her time between traveling, writing, and working on her debut poetry book.

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