The Dirty Lowdown on Anticipatory Anxiety

The Dirty Lowdown on Anticipatory Anxiety

Simply put, anticipatory anxiety is a discomforting and disquieting mind game you play on yourself. Do I have your attention yet?

You’re going to the dentist and you feel anxious. You’re about to go take a test and you feel anxious. You’ve been asked to have a meeting with your supervisor and you feel anxious. Do you see a pattern forming?

Anticipatory anxiety is a common discomfort experienced by millions of people.

Anticipatory anxiety is often characterized by physical symptoms – such as increased heart rate, a faster pulse, shallow rapid breathing, growing tension that can cause upset stomachs and bring on headaches, as well as greater sweatiness – all of which arise when thinking about an upcoming event, adventure, or simple trip to the grocery store.

Anticipatory anxiety tends to occur when we think about what may happen in a particular setting or situation (that hasn’t happened yet), which can cause us great anxiety.

The Dirty Lowdown on Anticipatory Anxiety

If we allow our imaginations to magnify the potential problems we may (but probably won’t) encounter at the event, our anxiety can reach peak levels, making us dizzy with worry. However, if we imagine the upcoming event as being uncomfortable or embarrassing then interestingly enough our anxiety will be less severe, though still quite noticeable. The difference between incapacitating anticipatory anxiety and being moderately self-conscious and uncomfortable is entirely rooted in what we are thinking about the upcoming event. It is purely conjecture.

We really don’t know what will occur. We guess, fabricate, and imagine, and yet we don’t know, which in itself can bring about anxiety. Nevertheless, because we do fabricate outcomes (usually negatives ones) of events that haven’t happened yet, we tend to become anxious. If we were to imagine positive outcomes we would be much less anxious – maybe even excited.

The key to reducing anticipatory anxiety is being aware of your thinking processes.

The Dirty Lowdown on Anticipatory Anxiety

If we can capture fleeing internal sentences and/or internal images, which we have created about an anticipated situation, we can analyze them. More often than not, they’re not realistic. We may see ourselves at the dentist’s office in excruciating pain. We may imagine ourselves taking a test and being totally unable to answer any question. We foresee the meeting with our supervisor as an opportunity to be reprimanded or even fired. All of these scenarios take place in our mind without a shred of evidence. Yet, the mind reacts as if it’s a fact, and the body reacts accordingly – spewing anxiety producing chemicals into the blood stream.

So, how do we combat anticipatory anxiety?

– First, be aware of the physical symptoms and take a moment to relax when you feel them coming on. You can do this by taking a few deep inhales and exhales.

– Then examine what your thinking about – your internal dialogue and your mental pictures that occurred when you felt your anxiety creeping up.

– Counter the unrealistic and irrational thoughts with more realistic and evidence based thoughts. For example, if you see yourself in excruciating pain at the dentist’s office, counter that with the knowledge that you will actually be feeling no pain due to the Novocain or other pain inhibitors you will receive.

– Test anxiety can be countered by envisioning yourself answering the questions rather than not; it’s purely a matter of imagining something negative vs. imagining something positive. And, if you have studied for the test and know the material, then it’s far more realistic for you to have a positive outcome than a negative one.

Anticipatory anxiety is a discomforting and disquieting mind game you play on yourself. But you can win if you are aware willing to be aware of your thinking, and are able to challenge the irrational and unrealistic thinking, replacing it with more realistic, evidence-based thoughts. Realistic thinking is not necessarily positive thinking, it is more objective. Sometimes, people refer to it as scientific thinking, because it is based on evidence, not conjecture.

So, the next time you start to feel anxious, try to implement scientific thinking and examine the evidence before you. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised to find the source of your anticipatory anxiety vanish like clouds dispersing after a storm.


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Published by

Ken Fields

Talkspace Therapist