Anticipatory anxiety is the anxiety we experience in anticipation of exposure to our frightening triggers. Anticipatory anxiety is a more complex problem than other forms of anxiety because in our attempts to avoid what we fear, we only make our fear and anxiety THAT much stronger. The only way to overcome anticipatory anxiety is to face your fear.
Anticipatory anxiety is a negative projection about an unknown outcome.
Common ways we cope with anticipatory anxiety?
-Taking anti-anxiety drugs
-Avoiding the source of our fear
-Seeking reassurance from others
If you struggle with anticipatory anxiety, you likely suffer from high negative emotions. You likely have high trait neuroticism. If you’re highly neurotic, it’s possible that you feel trapped by the trait’s maladaptive thought patterns, or struggle with depression or anxiety, both of which are more likely to occur in highly neurotic individuals. (If you are interested in finding your level of neuroticism, I copied and pasted a link to the Big Five Factor test that assesses levels of neuroticism as one of the fundamental personality traits).
If you struggle with anticipatory anxiety, you are likely NOT open to new experiences. Anything that is not routine and within your comfort zone is going to spike your baseline anxiety levels. People who struggle with anxiety tend to be high in neuroticism and low on openness to new experiences.
If you struggle with this type of anxiety, you hate dealing with uncertainty. The problem with this is life is chock full of uncertainties. The thing is some people are okay with having a lot of uncertainty in their lives, and other people cannot stand even a small amount of uncertainty.
Some people may be temperamentally more “high-strung” and biologically more vulnerable to anxiety. It is important you seek treatment as left untreated it tends to worsen with age. Learning coping skills to mitigate anxiety is transformational to those who suffer.
Some common traits of people who are intolerant of uncertainty:
- Seeking excessive reassurance from others: You want others to agree with you or reassure you. This might be asking friends or family their opinion on a decision that you have to make or asking for excessive support
- List-making: As a way of eliminating uncertainty, some people will make long and detailed “to do” lists, sometimes several lists every day
- Double checking: For example, calling loved ones repeatedly to “make sure” that they are okay, or re-reading emails several times to check that they are perfect and that there are no spelling mistakes
- Refusing to delegate tasks to others: Many people who are intolerant of uncertainty will not allow anyone either at work or at home to do certain tasks; this is because they cannot be “sure” that it will be done correctly unless they do it
- Procrastination/avoidance: Because being uncertain can cause anxiety, some people simply procrastinate or avoid people, places or situations. If you do not do something, then you don’t have to feel uncertain about it
- Distraction: Many people who are intolerant of uncertainty keep themselves “busy” most of the day, that way, they don’t have the time to think about all the uncertainty in life
A common way we see anticipatory anxiety play out is in a common fear many people have which is of flying.
Here is how it plays out.
If you are phobic of flying, booking a flight might bring upon some anxiety. The week before the trip, your anxiety will likely begin to escalate. By the night before you are scheduled to fly, you may be on the verge of having a panic attack. In anticipatory anxiety, you imagine the future. You experience an imaginary airplane, not a real one. You imagine what might happen if you get on the plane. You are at home, imagining one or a variety of imaginary in-flight disasters.Or feeling anxious about being trapped in a rocket ship (your own “internal” claustrophobia). You see stress depends upon imagination. Note I am saying you “imagine” because your imagination is creating the worst case scenario. Anticipatory anxiety has you amping up your stress response and mentally psyching yourself out.
When the day comes and it is time to leave for the airport you may feel like you are on the verge of a panic attack. Your imagination runs wild. You will continue to feel your anxiety escalate as you drive to the airport, go through security, and sit waiting for your plane to board.
Yet when you actually board the plane and take it off, you actually feel okay during the flight. This is because anticipatory anxiety is different from phobic anxiety. Yet while flying you may feel okay, if you were to think about scheduling ANOTHER flight, your anticipatory anxiety would ramp up. The thing about anxiety is it is often quite irrational in nature.
Anticipatory anxiety is the fear and dread you experience before the event or situation.
It’s what’s at play when you spend weeks dreading the results of a doctor’s appointment, yet the news is benign and manageable. Or when you have social anxiety–you may struggle with the decision to accept or decline attending a friend’s birthday, but eventually give in and go, and have a great time! “Why did I do that to myself?” you wonder.
Most people experience anticipatory anxiety, every once and awhile. This experience is the body’s normal response to perceived future threats. In the days and hours leading up to an important event you may be anxious and nervous, which is the stress response in action. It is anticipating the need to protect the body from threat or danger. Although this system is critical to our survival when there is actual threat or danger, it’s a big problem when there isn’t.
People who struggle with anxiety tend to have faulty cognitions. This is why CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) can be so helpful in the treatment of this disorder. It is understandable that during times of high stress and uncertainty emotions run high. However, people who are anxious perpetually suffer from high stress and out of control emotions. Anxiety suffers tend to see things in black or white terms, in other words, as right or wrong, moral or immoral. They are not able to see the nuances and complexities of situations.
Common areas of anticipatory anxiety include:
- Applying for a new job
- Speaking in public or other performances
- Going on a date or to a party
- Joining a club, team or sport
- Starting a job
- Preparing for an interview
- Going on vacation
- Tests, projects and oral reports
- Life changes: getting married, having a baby, buying a house, relocating, retiring
Underlying this sense of anxiety is the feeling that you cannot handle whatever it is you fear. It is a lack of confidence in your ability to cope.
Yet every time you encounter something that forces you to “handle it,” your self-esteem is raised immensely. You learn to trust that you will survive, no matter what happens. And in this way your fears are diminished immeasurably. You realize you can handle WHATEVER life throws at you.
Being anxious leads to behavior that drives others away. When we struggle with anxiety we feel compelled to control other people and our environment. Anxiety leads us to manipulate others because we desperately need them to act in a way that feels safe to us or predictable. It is a self-defeating strategy as this type of attitude will act a repellant to healthy-functioning people.
Once you have this confidence, you are able to face challenges head on because you are not dependent on a particular outcome. You know no matter the outcome you can cope.
People who struggle with anxiety lack the confidence to cope with stress. Remember true security and confidence is knowing you can handle things. Underlying any anxiety disorder is a lack of trust in ourselves.
Think of it this way: IF YOU KNEW YOU COULD HANDLE ANYTHING LIFE THROWS AT YOU, WHAT WOULD YOU POSSIBLY HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT? The answer is: NOTHING!
Remember that the mind and body is designed to adapt. Too often people forget the inherent resilience of the human spirit. As long as you continue to face the things you fear, your anticipatory anxiety should subside. Short-term use of medications that calm anxiety may also be useful — talk to your doctor to find out what is best for you.
As long as you continue to grow and evolve, there will be new challenges and fears to face.
So the choice is yours. Grow, evolve, and face your fears OR choose to stay stagnant and in a bubble throughout your life. If you continue to do what you have always done, you will get the same results. If you want new results, you need to try a new approach.
Attempting to do anything new is uncomfortable and anxiety producing. This is a universal human experience. But anxiety is paradoxical–face the painful feelings now and feel incredible after or feel relief now and face the painful feelings later. We must push ourselves out of our comfort zones. Because in doing so we get to the other side: a place of genuine growth and a better version of yourself.
Remember coping with anxiety is a life long process. Be kind to yourself.
To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):
Anew Counseling Services LLC
617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649