Anticipatory Anxiety

July 15, 2019
People who suffer from anticipatory anxiety know how difficult it is to constantly think about how bad things are just over the horizon. Read on to learn all about it!

People who live with anticipatory anxiety deal with uncertainty and worry that make it hard to breathe. They’re victims of their harried minds, always imagining the worst. There are few experiences worse than feeling trapped by permanent angst, your body and mind gripped by fear.

Simply put, anticipatory anxiety is when the mind tries to predict the future and creates a negative projection about something that hasn’t happened yet. Most of us have experienced this at some point or another. So why do we do it? Why is this type of anxiety becoming more and more common in our society?

To answer that question, you have to understand two simple things about human nature. The first is that human beings instinctually want to have everything under control. The second is that human beings are absolutely terrified of uncertainty. We can’t tolerate it or know how to deal with it well. It’s more exhausting and frustrating than you might realize.

Anticipatory anxiety makes it difficult to deal with job interviews, tests, medical appointments, etc. Even just asking yourself if you’ll have enough money next month to pay your bills can put you in a downward spiral. You expect the worst, which stymies any efforts you might have made to face and overcome the obstacle at hand.

“Worry doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorry, it empties today of its strength.”

-Corrie Ten Boom-

An anxious guy leaning on a window.

Anticipatory Anxiety Lets Fear Take Control

These days, people spend a lot of time being worried. That isn’t a problem in and of itself, as long as you know how to properly manage your worries. Believe it or not, you can find a balance and correct level of anxiety that works in your favor. This allows you to take advantage of the heightened awareness that anxiety brings, and combine it with a flexible and positive outlook to face everyday challenges.

This is all easier said than done because your brain follows instinct over reason. That’s why your imagination leads you to imagine the worst when faced with uncertainty. This anxious feeling immediately stimulates the amygdala, which is the area of the brain that has to do with fear. It’s in charge of setting in motion your body’s physiological responses. It triggers the release of hormones such as cortisol to help you act quickly.

The reason why some people suffer from anticipatory anxiety and others don’t might be the amygdala. A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published in the scientific journal Nature discovered that some peoples’ brains are more “reactive” to uncertainty and threats. In other words, some people are neurologically less tolerant of these types of situations, so they react with elevated anxiety.

The brain dealing with anticipatory anxiety.

Symptoms and Characteristics

If you live with anxiety, you aren’t really living. Instead, you’re in a kind of limbo, watching all the terrible possibilities of the future play out in front of you. It doesn’t matter what you have planned or what you have to do today, tomorrow, or in five years. At some point, everything’s going to go wrong.

  • A feeling of constant vigilance and insecurity. Feeling sad and helpless, but also angry because you don’t know what to do.
  • Obsessive thoughts and cognitive distortions abound. Your view of reality is clouded, you can’t see the present because you’re always looking towards a negative future.
  • Living with constant fear. Always feeling afraid means that you’re also constantly experiencing the physical symptoms that go along with fear, such as trembling, sweating, stomachaches, and a racing heart. This psychological condition often leads to panic attacks.

How to Reduce Anticipatory Anxiety and Live Better

Horace, the great Roman poet, said that adversity has the gift of awakening talents which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant. Your world and your life will always be dynamic. You’ll always have to deal with unforeseen changes. There’ll always be pressure and things will often be out of your control. Dealing with adversity is part of life.

Most of us, however, aren’t taught how to properly face this reality. You aren’t even hardwired to deal with uncertainty. It’s normal to be afraid. The mistake is to let that fear take over your life. The key to overcoming anticipatory anxiety and living a good life is to reflect on these points:

  • The emotions you feel don’t have to define your behavior. It’s normal to feel scared and anxious. Accept your emotions and normalize them, but don’t let them dictate your behavior.
  • The only one who can control your thoughts is you. Don’t let your mind spend too much time in those dark places. Don’t be paralyzed by your fear. Air things out, focus on your surroundings, and find balance in the present moment. The most important thing is the here and now. After all, tomorrow hasn’t happened yet.
  • Practice spontaneity. Say goodbye to your old patterns. Fear and negative thoughts creep up on you when you’re still. Routine can make you rusty, which can make your brain lose the motivation to re-direct those obsessive thoughts. Get up and move. Don’t think, just feel. Exercise, practice mindfulness, and encourage your heart to connect with the world around you. Meet new people and see new places.
A person meditating on a mountain.

Anticipatory Anxiety Doesn’t Have to Rule Your Life

In conclusion, all of us have experienced anticipatory anxiety at some point or another. Today’s world makes it easy to succumb to these kinds of negative thoughts. However, don’t think that feeling anxious makes you weaker. Instead, consider it an opportunity to become a stronger person. Use the experience as an opportunity to put your new skills to the test and live a happier life.

  • Chua, P., Krams, M., Toni, I., Passingham, R., & Dolan, R. (1999). A functional anatomy of anticipatory anxiety. NeuroImage9(6 I), 563–571. https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.1999.0407
  • Grupe, D. W., & Nitschke, J. B. (2013, July). Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: An integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3524