How Does Anticipatory Anxiety Condition Us?

February 5, 2018

Anticipatory anxiety is a process that we carry out at a mental level. We imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen in any given situation that is causing us stress or anxiety. For example, before facing a job interview, you might imagine them asking you uncomfortable questions that you don’t know how to answer. You then go blank and end up being rejected for the position.

One of the immediate consequences of this type of anxiety is that we stop focusing on the present. We start projecting black clouds in the future that we aren’t able to disperse, simply because we can’t reach into the future and touch those events. The anticipation is related to catastrophic future thoughts. It is as if we are constantly living on the verge of danger, having to protect ourselves from possible future threats.

“Worry doesn’t eliminate the pain of tomorrow, but it does eliminate the strength of today”

-Corrie Ten Boom-

Negative thoughts feed anticipatory anxiety

Although we don’t want them to, negative thoughts can often invade and control our mind and make us feel anxious. When what we think makes us feel bad, we call this distorted thoughts or cognitive distortions. These kinds of thoughts make us see the world through a biased vision of reality. It’s as if we’RE wearing dark glasses that cloud the light of day.

Woman with anticipatory anxiety

Imagine you are in front of an audience and you have to give a lecture. If you have anticipatory anxiety, then catastrophic thoughts of the type “I won’t be able to do it”, “I’ll go blank”, or “they’ll laugh at me” may appear. This will make it difficult for you to think clearly about situations that you perceive as threatening. If  we keep having these kinds of thoughts then they may end up becoming reality. Psychologists call this self-fulfilling prophecy.

Self-fulfilling prophecy generates a negative expectation that shapes our behavior until what we had imagined is actually fulfilled. If we think we’re going to get a mental block when giving a presentation, then we may well be creating the circumstances for this to actually happen, thus confirming our negative prediction.

Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you’re always right

-Henry Ford-

Anticipatory anxiety tries to predict the future and makes it worse

Anxiety helps us to mobilize our body against a possible threat or a real danger. It is not bad in itself; on the contrary it gives us information about possible imminent dangers. On the other hand, anticipatory anxiety tries to predict the consequences of a future event. It tries to prevent a danger that hasn’t yet happened. This can be useful on some occasions, and can help to protect us, but at other times it’ll make the road considerably more difficult.

For example, if you imagine that you’re going to have an accident in your car, then it’s likely the first thing you’ll do when you get in the vehicle is to put on your belt. This type of response can protect you in the case of an accident. But not all the reactions from anticipated anxiety will help. To use the same example of being afraid of having an accident, you may decide to stay at home and not take the car. Your anxiety will  increase because of this and you won’t get rid of it.

Some symptoms that anticipatory anxiety can cause are: dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, chest pain, and stuttering, among many others. In addition, there may be a feeling that emotions are taking over us and that we are losing control of the situation. These symptoms are caused by a lack of tolerance of what we can’t control. We often find it difficult to manage feelings of uncertainty and we get stressed seeing that we can’t control everything that happens around us.

The intensity of the anguish is proportional to the meaning that the situation has for the affected person

-Karen Horney-

Girl thinking

Some tips to reduce anticipatory anxiety

To overcome anticipatory anxiety you’ll often need a psychological appointment, supplemented in some cases by a pharmacological one. Some advice is: stop the negative thoughts, focus on your breathing, practice mindfulness, exercise, and train yourself in the situations that make you panic. Let’s take them one by one.

Stop or delay your negative thoughts

Imagine that you can talk to your negative thoughts and tell them you don’t want them to hassle you anymore. Tell them to stop bothering you and that you’ll pay attention to them later when you’ve finished focusing on other more important matters. If we delay our thoughts, it is easier for our emotions to be less affected and for us to feel more confident.

This habit of delaying thinking about a certain idea works best when we set a day and time to consider it. By doing this we’re not postponing it indefinitely.

Train yourself to face the situations that scare you

If you expose yourself in a steady way to things you’re afraid of, then your anxiety will gradually diminish. The solution is not to avoid what you fear, but to face small challenges that can help you to overcome your deepest fears. For example, if you’re afraid of flying then a first positive step may be to go and pick someone up from the airport and watch how the planes take off and land.

Exercise the art of living in the present

Anxiety occurs because you’re thinking too far in the future in your life. Therefore, if you train yourself to live in the present you’ll feel a lot calmer. Practices such as mindfulness or meditation can help to overcome anticipatory anxiety. For example, if you focus your attention on breathing in the minutes before a presentation, your negative thoughts may disappear or at least be lessened.

Girl with open arms

Do some kind of exercise that makes you feel good

Exercise can help you leave anxiety behind once and for all. Not only will you be taking care of your body, but you will also help your mental health. To transform the practice of exercise into a custom it’s important that you introduce it gradually. If you binge on it, the only thing you’re going to get is stiffness, possibly an injury, and you won’t be doing any more for a very long time.

Exercise releases endorphins and also helps us sleep better and to pass through life in a more relaxed manner

If we use anticipatory anxiety energy as an impulse to improve and learn from ourselves, then we’ll be using its positive side. We can learn to face it and show a healthy degree of skepticism about what it predicts.

To do this, it is useful to learn to de-dramatize, and see that in the end the worst thing that can happen is simply a probability. The rest of our life is happening here and now, in front of our very noses and we have the opportunity to grab it, grow, and live fully in the present.