Published On: December 21, 2022
Reviewed On: December 21, 2022
Updated On: November 2, 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.
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:
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.
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.
Expert 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.”
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
Expert 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.”
Knowing how to deal with anticipatory anxiety is easier when you have some tips.
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.
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.
Next, it’s essential to counter unwanted, intrusive thoughts with more realistic and evidence-based thoughts and not immediately turn to the negative outcome.
Expert 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
National Institute of Mental Health. Accessed November 26, 2022.
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 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.