The Dirty Lowdown on Anticipatory Anxiety

Published on: 19 Jul 2019
The Dirty Lowdown on Anticipatory Anxiety

Anticipatory anxiety is a discomforting and disquieting mind game you play on yourself.
Here are a few examples: 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? It’s all about the expectation of something stressful. This is what it means to experience anticipatory anxiety — you dread the future without evidential cause.

Anticipatory Anxiety Defined

Anticipatory anxiety is a common symptom that is a part of a larger social anxiety diagnosis. 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 sweating — 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), with usually a negative outcome, which can then cause us great anxiety.
Our imaginations magnify the potential problems we may (or may not) encounter, and as a result our anxiety can peak, making us dizzy with worry. 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. When thinking about the future, we guess, fabricate, and imagine, and yet we don’t know how it’s actually going to turn out — which in itself can bring about anxiety. Nevertheless, because we fabricate outcomes (usually negative ones) for events that haven’t happened yet, we tend to become anxious. However, if we were to imagine positive outcomes we would be much less anxious — maybe even excited.

Recognizing Anticipatory Anxiety

The key to reducing anticipatory anxiety is becoming aware of your cognitive processes. But first you must recognize that you’re experiencing anxiety in the first place.
If we can recognize fleeting internal thoughts and images that we’ve imagined about an anticipated situation, we can analyze them — cooly and rationally. And, more often than not, these anxious thoughts are not realistic.
Think about these anticipatory anxiety example scenarios:

  • 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 bloodstream.

How to Combat Anticipatory Anxiety

1. Be Aware of Your Thoughts and Emotions

Recognize all 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 you’re thinking about — the internal dialogue and the mental pictures that occurred when you feel your anxiety creeping up.

2. Reason with Yourself

Next, it’s important to 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 Novocaine or other pain inhibitors you will receive. If you’re feeling anxious about an upcoming test, counter it by preparing adequately and envisioning yourself answering the questions and getting an awesome grade.

3. Affirm Your Thoughts with Evidence

The key to dispelling anticipatory anxiety is purely a matter of imagining something negative vs something positive. In most cases, you may even find that the positive will happen more often than the worst case scenario. This is because evidence usually supports that your upcoming event won’t be a total disaster. For example, if you know that 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 become more aware of your thinking, and begin to challenge the irrational and unrealistic thinking by replacing it with more realistic, evidence-based thoughts. Realistic thinking is not necessarily positive thinking, but it is more objective. Sometimes, people refer to it as scientific thinking, because it is based on evidence, not conjecture. And, more often than not, scientific thinking will help you avoid an anxiety-riddled outcome.
So, the next time you start to feel anxious, try to implement realistic thinking and examine the evidence before you. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised that the sources of your anticipatory anxiety vanish like clouds dispersing after a storm.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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