Anticipatory Anxiety: Definition, Symptoms, Causes & Coping Mechanisms

Anxiety Disorder
Read Time: 5 Minutes
Written by:Bisma Anwar, MA, MSc, LMHC

Published On: December 21, 2022

Medically reviewed by: Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R

Reviewed On: December 21, 2022

Updated On: November 2, 2023


Updated 2/1/2023

Anticipatory anxiety is a discomforting and disquieting mind game you play on yourself and can negatively affect your mental health. For example, you’re going to the dentist, and you feel anxious. You’re about to take a test, and you feel anxious. You’ve been asked for a meeting with your supervisor, and you feel anxious. See a pattern?

Each anxious thought is due to an event that might lead to stress, anticipation, uncertainty, fear, or panic. This is what it means to experience anticipatory anxiety. You dread the future without evidential cause.

More than 19% of adults in the United States experienced an episode of anxiety in the past year — if you’re dealing with any form of anxiety, you’re not alone.

Keep reading to learn more about anticipatory anxiety. We’re looking at signs and symptoms, causes, triggers, and, most importantly, how to deal with this often-overlooked type of anxiety.

What is Anticipatory Anxiety?

Anticipatory anxiety occurs in anticipation of an event or situation. Past experiences, current stressors, or anticipated future events can cause it. It’s a common anticipation symptom that’s part of a larger social anxiety disorder diagnosis.

Anticipatory anxiety symptoms can include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Fast pulse
  • Shallow rapid breathing
  • Growing tension that causes an upset stomach or brings on headaches
  • Sweaty palms

Anticipatory anxiety happens when you think about a situation that hasn’t occurred yet. In your mind, the event will almost always have a negative outcome, which can then cause great anxiety, stress, or panic. Your imagination magnifies the potential problems you may (or may not) encounter. As a result, your anxiety level can peak.

People with anticipatory anxiety guess, fabricate, and imagine when they think about the future. Of course, nobody knows for sure how anything will turn out — which can bring even more anxiety and negative thoughts. Nevertheless, situational anxiety can often stem from fabricated outcomes (usually negative ones) for events that haven’t happened yet. If you were able to imagine positive outcomes, you’d likely be much less anxious — and maybe even excited — about the future.

Signs & Symptoms of Anticipatory Anxiety

The key to reducing anticipatory anxiety is becoming aware of the signs and triggers so you can catch them when you’re first experiencing them.

iconExpert Insight

“Anxious thoughts cause anxiety and can ultimately impact our actions and behaviors. They can make us increasingly nervous, and our performance at work or in school could be negatively impacted. By having more awareness around your anxiety and learning how to manage it, you can stop it from getting out of control.”
Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), MA, MSc Bisma Anwar

Once you learn to recognize negative thoughts and images you’ve imagined about an anticipated situation, you can analyze them — coolly and rationally. Most often, you’ll find these unwanted intrusive thoughts aren’t realistic.

Think about these anticipatory anxiety example scenarios:

  • You see yourself at the dentist’s office in excruciating pain
  • You imagine yourself taking a test and being totally unable to answer any question
  • You foresee a meeting with your supervisor as an opportunity to be reprimanded or even fired
  • You experience nausea or other physical symptoms, worrying
  • You feel overwhelmed and start catastrophizing
  • You use negative self-talk
  • You’re dizzy or short of breath

All of these scenarios and catastrophic thinking take place in your mind without much evidence. Yet, the mind reacts as if it’s a fact, and the body responds accordingly — spewing anxiety-producing chemicals into the bloodstream, ultimately increasing your anxiety level.

Causes of Anticipatory Anxiety

What causes anxiety? It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact source because there can be many causes, however, the one type of anxiety that’s relatively easy to identify is anticipatory anxiety. Reasons for anticipatory anxiety might include the following:

  • An upcoming event
  • A job interview
  • A first date
  • Something more general, like worrying about how you’ll do on a test at school

For anticipatory anxiety specifically, a significant factor is perfectionism. If you tend to set unrealistic standards for yourself but beat yourself up when you can’t meet the goals, it can lead to anxiety about future events where you may fail.

Catastrophizing — when you assume the worst possible outcome will occur even though there’s no evidence anything will ever happen — is common with anticipatory anxiety. For example, if you’re going on a first date with someone, instead of thinking, “this could be fun” or “I might have a good time,” your mind immediately jumps ahead to thoughts like “what if they think I’m boring?” or “what if I say something stupid?” These pessimistic predictions can fuel anticipatory anxiety and make it harder to relax and enjoy yourself at the moment.

If you often experience anticipatory anxiety, it may be helpful to seek professional help to deal with the underlying issues. Therapy for anxiety can be the perfect solution for working through perfectionism and learning how to combat catastrophic thinking so you can feel more relaxed and confident in the future.

What triggers anticipatory anxiety?

Anticipatory anxiety can be triggered by various things — from thinking about the future to anticipating a change in your routine. Some common triggers might include the following:

  • Worrying about the future
  • Anticipating a change in routine
  • Fear of the unknown

iconExpert Insight

“There are many reasons why we might start to feel anxious before we go into a particular situation. Some examples of anticipatory anxiety are when we’re about to travel somewhere, take a test, go on a date, or go into a social situation where we don’t know what to expect.”
Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), MA, MSc Bisma Anwar

How to Deal With Anticipatory Anxiety

Knowing how to deal with anticipatory anxiety is easier when you have some tips.

1. Be aware of your thoughts and emotions

Recognize all of the anticipatory anxiety symptoms and take a moment to decompress when you feel them coming on. You can practice mindful breathing by taking a few deep, slow inhales and exhales to avoid any unwanted intrusive thoughts. Then, examine what you’re thinking about — think about the internal dialogue and mental pictures you have when you feel your anxiety creeping up.

2. Identify your triggers

For any person, an important step in dealing with anticipatory anxiety is identifying what triggers your anxious thoughts and feelings. Once you know your triggers, you can start working on avoiding or managing them.

3. Reason with yourself

Next, it’s essential to counter unwanted, intrusive thoughts with more realistic and evidence-based thoughts and not immediately turn to the negative outcome.

iconExpert Insight

“It’s really important to “reality check” your thoughts, so you don’t let them take over. Question them and push back on what they’re telling you. Don’t let your anxious thoughts take over and cause you more anxiety. By challenging your thoughts, you’re not letting yourself be ruled by anxiety. This process can become easier if you’re in therapy because someone else can help you do this “reality checking.”
Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), MA, MSc Bisma Anwar

For example, if you see yourself in excruciating pain at the dentist’s office, counter that with the knowledge that you’ll actually be feeling no pain at all due to the Novocain or other pain inhibitors you’ll receive.

Likewise, if you’re feeling anxious or intense fear about an upcoming test, challenge your feelings by reminding yourself that you prepared adequately and envision yourself answering the questions and getting an excellent grade.

4. Affirm your thoughts with evidence

The key to dispelling anticipatory anxiety is purely a matter of imagining something negative vs. positive. In most cases, 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, suppose you know you studied for the test and understand the material. In that case, it’s far more realistic for you to have a positive outcome than a negative one.

5. Practice relaxation techniques

Studies show that relaxation techniques — like deep breathing exercises for anxiety, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation — can help reduce stress and ease anxiety symptoms.

The next time you start to feel anxious or intense fear, try a relaxation technique to avoid any panic attacks. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised that your anticipatory anxiety vanishes (or at least severely decreases). If your anticipatory anxiety starts feeling unmanageable, it might be time to look into getting help. Talkspace offers online therapy that works with your schedule.

6. Find healthy coping mechanisms

Learn how to deal with anxiety by doing effective and healthy things for yourself. For example, journaling, working out, reading, practicing self-care, or getting outdoors can help control your anxiety.

Overcome Anxiety with Talkspace

Don’t worry. Anxiety is a normal — even healthy — emotion that everyone experiences at one point or another. It’s what you feel when you’re worried, nervous, or scared. For some people, anxiety can be mild and short-lived. For others, though, it can be severe, long-lasting, and interfere with daily life. Seeking professional help can be the first step to beating anticipatory anxiety.

Talkspace is an online platform that’s changing how people access therapy. We’re making the process simple, affordable, and, best of all, convenient. Learn how Talkspace can help you overcome anticipatory anxiety today.

See References

  • Any Anxiety Disorder

    National Institute of Mental Health. Accessed November 26, 2022.

  • The role of deep breathing on stress

    Perciavalle, Valentina et al. Neurological sciences : official journal of the Italian Neurological Society and of the Italian Society of Clinical Neurophysiology vol. 38,3 (2017): 451-458. doi:10.1007/s10072-016-2790-8.

Bisma Anwar

Bisma Anwar is the Team Lead for the Talkspace Council of Mental Health Experts. A major focus in her work has been anxiety management and helping her clients develop healthy coping skills, reduce stress and prevent burnout. She serves on the board of a non-profit organization based in NYC called The Heal Collective which promotes advocacy and awareness of mental health issues in BIPOC communities.

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