Anticipatory anxiety: What it is and how to overcome it

It’s quite normal to feel anxious or nervous about certain things in life.

In fact, feelings of anxiety can be healthy. It can, in many cases, motivate us to be more productive, prepared, and focused. Anxiety basically triggers our fight-or-flight response for survival.

Anxiety only affects our well-being when it progresses into a debilitating emotion.

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

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

Anticipatory anxiety is usually related to another type of anxiety disorder — generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, or even social phobia.

And 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. And any number of human experiences can cause you to feel anxious over 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?

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.

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.

Instead, 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.

So 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.

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

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.”

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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