Anticipatory Anxiety: Keys to Managing It

Controlling thoughts that focus on anticipating the worst and most catastrophic scenarios is key to psychological health. We teach you a series of strategies to learn how to manage anticipatory anxiety in these types of situations.
Anticipatory Anxiety: Keys to Managing It
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

At some point in our lives, all of us have experienced the feeling that everything will go wrong in the end. The thought that the plane you’re about to board will crash or the worry of making a fool of yourself at that conference or that job interview that’s so crucial to get promoted. These kinds of thoughts are clear enemies of well-being. Let’s have a look at the different keys to managing anticipatory anxiety.

Much of this type of fatalistic and emotionally charged cognition gradually forms the basis of all self-fulfilling prophecies. In other words, if you don’t stop thinking that you’re going to fail that test in some way, the worst is likely to happen, given your insecurity and the intense aversion that’s been piling up in your mind.

To speak of anticipatory anxiety is to refer to that obsessive fear that certain catastrophic situations will end up happening. It doesn’t matter if there’s no real probability of that happening in the near future – the brain sometimes fables, designs, and orchestrates terror scenarios about what may happen in the near future. As you can probably imagine, this approach places us in a state of constant alertness and hyperactivation.

Handling these types of thoughts can spare you, for example, from developing conditions like phobias, panic attacks, or social anxiety. Being aware of the ways in which this trait plays out in our character or in our general approach to life can be helpful.

Let’s have a look at how to achieve self-awareness.

A woman worrying and being anxious.

Five keys to managing anticipatory anxiety

Restlessness, agitation, nervousness, concentration problems, muscular pain, irritability, insomnia, headaches, changes in our diet… Anticipatory anxiety causes multiple symptoms, but perhaps the worst of all is the feeling of mental exhaustion. As the mind becomes overburdened with negative ideas about everything bad that can happen, you become mentally exhausted.

Thus, studies such as those conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (United States) indicate that uncertainty is a key factor in the appearance of anticipatory anxiety. Now more than ever, you could say that the weight of simply not being able to know what’s going to happen in the short or long run is an obvious trigger, which is causing anxiety states to become more common in the population.

Learning and integrating coping strategies that can help you deal with this type of situation in your daily life will be very helpful. Let’s take a closer look.

Educating our internal dialogue

In order to get anticipatory anxiety under control, there’s one key aspect that you must grasp. Most of the time, you aren’t aware of your tendency towards excessive worry, to always look on the dark side of life, and to make a big deal out of everything.

When faced with any problem, you have two options: you either continue seeing more and more into our problems or you can look for solutions. One way to achieve this is by educating your internal dialogue. To do this, you should be able to detect and deactivate the following enemies:

  • A sense of doom, which never allows you to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
  • Invalidating, destructive forms of self-criticism.
  • A sense of victimhood, which doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for yourself.
  • Excessive self-criticism, which doesn’t allow you to experience failure and learn from past mistakes.

Our feet on the ground and our gaze anchored in the here and now

Anxiety emerges in our minds when you feed it only with situations that may take place in the future. Thinking exclusively about what could happen if this or that happened makes you lose the present and increases anguish. Life isn’t about tomorrow. Life is here and now and that’s all that matters.

If you want to manage anticipatory anxiety in your life, it may help you to understand the following:

  • The future should only serve to place goals and objectives in it, not fears.
  • There’s no point in worrying about something that hasn’t happened. When you perceive that your mind escapes into the future to imagine a thousand fatalities, it’s appropriate, for example, to do a physical activity that allows you to situate your body and brain in the present. Going for a walk, walking, or doing an aerobic exercise can help you.
  • Carrying a journal is also a great idea. You can write down future concerns in it and then confront them with what’s happening in the here and now. Is there any evidence that what I think might happen will happen?

How to control anticipatory anxiety: the importance of self-care

A man worrying and suffering from anticipatory anxiety.

Sometimes, we neglect the importance of daily self-care: giving yourself what you deserve when you need it is also key to psychological health. A study conducted at the University of California highlights the importance of restorative sleep to reduce the impact of anticipatory anxiety.

A tired body is also a tired brain. When you’re tired, your mind loses momentum, flexibility, and focus capacity. All this makes your mental focus more negative, therefore increasing anxiety.

  • You should try to sleep between seven and nine hours a day. Taking naps can be beneficial.
  • Leisure time shouldn’t equate with wasting time. In fact, it allows you to gain a sense of well-being. You should be able to organize your schedule so that you can enjoy a few hours of rest each day and dedicate them to the things you like.
  • Eating properly is another indisputable key to well-being.
  • Likewise, self-care also means having social networks with which to enjoy good moments of calm, connection, and emotional release. Having a good conversation is a great way to focus on the here and now and not so much on the future.

In conclusion, if you’re interested in managing anticipatory anxiety, there’s one other aspect you can’t neglect: sometimes, you can’t do it alone. Remember that unmanaged states of anxiety can become chronic. You shouldn’t hesitate to ask for expert help if you perceive that your everyday reality becomes unmanageable.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Grupe, D. W., & Nitschke, J. B. (2013, July). Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: An integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
  • Goldstein, A. N., Greer, S. M., Saletin, J. M., Harvey, A. G., Nitschke, J. B., & Walker, M. P. (2013). Tired and apprehensive: Anxiety amplifies the impact of sleep loss on aversive brain anticipation. Journal of Neuroscience33(26), 10607–10615.
  • Williams, L., Oler, J., Fox, A. et al. Fear of the Unknown: Uncertain Anticipation Reveals Amygdala Alterations in Childhood Anxiety Disorders. Neuropsychopharmacol 40, 1428–1435 (2015).

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.