It’s such a familiar word to us all.
Right now, 40 million Americans over the age of 18 are affected by anxiety — a staggering 18% of the country’s population.
Though unseen, anxiety is like a plague that reaches us all, no matter the age or situation in life.
In this article, we’ll discuss one type of anxiety—Anticipatory Anxiety.
Anticipatory anxiety is not considered an official anxiety disorder. However, it doesn’t make it less 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.
What is it and how do you cope with its symptoms? Read ahead to find out.
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.
That 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.
According to clinical mental health counselor Sheryl Ankrom:
“This is because the anticipation, or the way you visualize a future event, is focused on having a panic attack in certain situations.”
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.
“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?”
- 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
- muscle spasms
- difficulty in concentrating
- extreme feelings of apprehension
- 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.
A 2018 study, researchers found that levels of anticipatory anxiety increased when subjects were faced with aversive threats—situations they extremely disliked.
At its core, anticipatory boils down to a fear of something happening, but most of the time, it’s just in your head.
According to therapist Ken Fields:
“When thinking about the future, we guess, fabricate, and imagine, and yet we don’t know how it’s actually going to turn out — which in itself can bring about anxiety. Nevertheless, because we fabricate outcomes (usually negative ones) for events that haven’t happened yet, we tend to become anxious.”
Research also shows that anticipatory anxiety is triggered by the unpredictability and uncertainty of certain life events.
It’s ironic, but the fact that life is unpredictable only makes anticipatory anxiety difficult to manage.
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.
Unfortunately, anxiety may also keep us awake at night.
So how do you sleep when you’re having a particularly bad case of anticipatory anxiety?
According to Harvard Health Publishing, there are a few tips which include:
- Develop a regular sleeping rhythm (sleeping and waking up at the same time every day)
- Regular exercise
- Avoid caffeine (entirely or 8 hours before you sleep), alcohol, smoking, large meals, drinking a lot of fluids before bedtime, and medication that may help you keep awake
- Read, take a bath, listen to music, or relax before you go to bed
- Avoid napping, or at least keep them no more than an hour, and not after 3 p.m.
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.
Doing this. can also ease panic attacks and other anxiety disorders.
Yoga and meditation can be of huge help. In fact, research proves that mindfulness can have positive effects in treating anxiety and depression.
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?
According to Anxiety Canada:
“Realistic thinking means looking at all aspects of a situation (the positive, the negative, and the neutral) before making conclusions. In other words, realistic thinking means looking at yourself, others, and the world in a balanced and fair way.”
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.
According to anxiety expert and licensed professional counselor Katharina Star:
“In order to get to the root of your anxiety, you need to figure out what’s bothering you. To get to the bottom of your anxiety, put some time aside to exploring your thoughts and feelings.”
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.
Did you know that there’s such a thing as “mental rehearsal?”
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.
Mental rehearsal can help you with that.
An evidence-based technique used for treating anxiety is called desensitization. It’s a form of mental rehearsal in which patients repeatedly face stressful and threatening situations in a calm manner, using controlled emotions so that they learn how to respond to threat effectively.
When you find yourself dreading a future event, try and rehearse or visualize it in your head. This will help with your anticipatory anxiety,
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.
In fact, research shows that ruminating or overthinking can increase your risk of mental health illness. The researchers claim that overthinking is a “well-established risk factor for the onset of major depression and anxiety symptomatology,”
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.
Allyson Byers, freelance writer and someone who battles with anxiety and depression herself, attests to the benefits of this self-care habit.
“It’s become a way for me to reward myself for pushing through the bad days when getting out of bed seems impossible, for managing my anxiety with various techniques, for taking my antidepressants every day, and for fighting against the suicidal thoughts that plague my mind at least once a week.”
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.
Anticipatory anxiety and panic attacks
As mentioned above, anticipatory anxiety can often lead to full-blown panic attacks. It may even contribute to phobia.
Studies show that anticipatory anxiety is directly correlated to panic attacks in multiple and varying circumstances.
It’s been widely recognized that it is a symptom of panic disorder.
According to HelpGuide.org:
“Instead of feeling relaxed and like your normal self in between panic attacks, you feel anxious and tense. This anxiety stems from a fear of having future panic attacks. This “fear of fear” is present most of the time, and can be extremely disabling.”
If you think your anxiety may become, or has already led to panic attacks, you need to determine the cause of the symptom.
When you feel the onset of a panic attack with anticipatory anxiety, you should try willing your consciousness to go back to reality.
Psychologist Dr. Charles Schaeffer calls this technique “anchoring” yourself.
“Panic attacks can make you feel out of control. One way to counter that out-of-body feeling is to reconnect with your body and anchor yourself in the tangible world.”
He suggests breathing exercises or sitting down and rubbing your hands or feet on surfaces—creating sensations that will calm you down and lower your heart rate.
Dr. Schaeffer also says that panic attacks happen because we let our emotions get the best of us.
“When you have a panic attack, it’s because the emotional part of your brain (responsible for fight or flight responses) has hijacked the controls. Stress hormones flood your brain and put your body in survival mode.”
In this event, try to stay logical. Verbal reasoning can help by telling yourself you are in control of the situation and all of it is in your head. You can also engage in mindless tasks like washing dishes, sorting laundry or even playing a crossword puzzle.
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.