Understanding Anticipatory Anxiety & How To Cope With It

Updated October 6, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Anticipatory anxiety is when a person experiences worry and fear when thinking about an event that may or may not occur in the future. People can experience anticipatory anxiety when awaiting an upcoming interpersonal task, like a job interview, or worrying about unforeseen dangers, like natural disasters or crime. This is particularly debilitating, as it can begin anywhere from minutes to years before an anticipated event.

The intensity can vary from person to person and event to event. And it can happen throughout an individual’s life, from early-to-middle childhood all the way to late adulthood. Anticipatory anxiety is not a condition you will find in the diagnostical and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM), but instead is a symptom of other mental health conditions, like generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, or panic disorder. While anticipatory anxiety may begin as worry over a specific event, it can transform into fear of having another panic attack, prompting a continuation of anxious thoughts. Overcoming anticipatory anxiety is possible by using a variety of coping tactics, but you may need the assistance of a professional that can help you talk out your feelings and prescribe medications if required.

Anticipatory Anxiety is Pretty Common - Read More About What Causes It Here

Understanding Anticipatory Anxiety

During attacks of anticipatory anxiety, individuals are drowned in negative thoughts and potentials of what may happen during an event. They will typically have negative expectancies, sorting through every possibility that could go wrong, becoming unable to focus on anything else. Those with anticipatory anxiety find themselves wondering “What if …?”, usually followed by something awful happening.

When approaching an important event, such as a big speech, a job interview, or a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan, many individuals experience the usual side effects of a racing heart, sweaty palms, or butterflies in the stomach—all signs of anticipatory anxiety. However, when these are a daily or hourly occurrence, at much smaller events, the condition is considered more serious. Often, the symptoms become worse and include shortness of breath, dizziness, or even numbness. Some people become so alarmed by the symptoms, they believe they've contracted a fatal illness. When the occasion nears, those with clinical anxiety experience fear and stress, anticipating the worst possible outcome. They often react by avoiding participation in activities, even if these activities are their favorite hobbies or seeing their friends and family. In addition to loss of interest in usual hobbies, jumpiness, stomach pain, nausea, irritability, restlessness, muscle tension, and trouble concentrating are also often present.

There are different levels of anticipatory anxiety based on how much of a burden the anxiety is to someone's life. When worrying about a future event extends for over a month, it is classified as chronic anticipatory anxiety.

What Causes Anticipatory Anxiety?

Anticipatory anxiety is not a mental health condition. It is a symptom of other mental disorders—primarily anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, etc.). It often stems from, or is intensified by, previous events that aroused fear. For many with panic disorder, their first panic attack comes on naturally, without any warning signs. In severe circumstances, anticipatory anxiety can cause agoraphobia. In these cases, individuals develop a phobia of situations that may cause a panic attack, which incentivizes them to avoid most situations altogether.

Conscious versus Unconscious Anticipatory Anxiety

Anticipatory anxiety can exist both in the conscious and unconscious. Sometimes, people will go through their days feeling anxious about what is to come next, fearing negative outcomes, imagining worst-case scenarios, or worrying about the existence of an unpredictable threat that will interrupt day-to-day life. However, sometimes it can be more complicated. The tension creeps into dreams or manifests itself in outbursts the person cannot understand or even control. In these unconscious circumstances, we must understand the underlying fear to attack it head-on. 

Can You Overcome It?

Everyone fears certain future events in life. However, for those with anticipatory anxiety, it is important to face these potentially overwhelming fears as soon as they arise. Instead of pushing off a meeting you are sure to worry about, schedule it as soon as possible to limit the time of worry in between. If you continue to face the fears as they arise, you can end up reducing anxiety symptoms as it becomes increasingly clear that it is often unwarranted. With a little effort, you can be like the 37% of Americans that get help managing and overcoming their anxiety.

In addition to working on yourself through therapy, sometimes medication is required to success-fully manage anticipatory anxiety. Work together with a professional to determine if you need relief from your anxiety and panic symptoms with these medications. For more information on anxiety disorders and how to manage them, take a look at these medically reviewed articles.

Coping Tactics

While medication may be needed to help you fully manage your anxiety symptoms, there are several other coping strategies available for those who experience anticipatory anxiety. Relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, psychotherapy, and other treatments to address an underlying anxiety disorder can help reduce symptoms. Here are some tips and tricks that can help get you through your bouts of anticipatory anxiety.

Anticipatory Anxiety is Pretty Common - Read More About What Causes It Here

  • Have a Support System. As human beings, we are hardwired to seek out social support, and it's no different with anticipatory anxiety. Try talking about your concerns with a loved one or someone you trust.
  • Relax. Coping strategies that help you relax can keep your anxiety at bay and can even work to defuse panic attacks. Find relaxation techniques that work for you, whether they are yoga, meditation, journaling, progressive muscle relaxation, or using deep breathing exercises. Anything that helps you stay in the present moment and mediates anticipatory processing, which occurs when we experience anticipatory anxiety, can reduce symptoms. It is also important to remember that not getting enough sleep can make anxiety worse.
  • Practice Gratitude. Practicing gratitude daily can retrain your brain to focus on positive emotions and thoughts, rather than the anxious thoughts and negative input that come with anticipatory anxiety. Actively finding things to be grateful for and focusing on the positive can reduce the anxious thoughts and uncomfortable feelings that come with anticipatory anxiety.
  • Have Compassion for Yourself. If you find yourself struggling to cope with anticipatory anxiety, don't beat yourself up over it. Instead, treat yourself with love and kindness and talk to yourself in a soothing manner to quiet the inner conflict you are facing.
  • Seek Professional Help. Experiencing anticipatory anxiety can be challenging, but overcoming this anxiety is possible. While the tips and tricks mentioned in this article can help reduce symptoms, developing a game plan to manage your symptoms and the intensity of your anxiety often requires the help of a professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy have proven beneficial in coping with and overcoming anticipatory anxiety. With cognitive behavioral therapy, a mental health professional helps you identify and change the thought processes and behaviors that are playing a role in your anxiety. On the other hand, panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy is where a therapist works with you so that you become aware of unconscious conflicts and defense mechanisms that play a role in your anxiety.

The good news is that therapy has been proven to be an effective treatment for anticipatory anxiety that becomes a chronic symptom of mental health issues. A technique known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to effectively treat anxiety disorders—like generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and other anxiety disorders—in patients without any use of medication. Help and a life beyond anxiety is waiting for you. To learn more about therapy and how it can help when you feel anxious, check out these medically reviewed articles.

Peer-reviewed studies have shown that online therapy is useful for reducing anxiety and a variety of other mental health issues. Connecting with a mental health professional online means you can discuss your mental health concerns in the comfort of your own space and on whatever device you choose. Set up your appointment at a time that works for you, and then communicate with your therapist via texting, email, voice chat, or video chat. Check out some reviews of BetterHelp counselors be-low.

Counselor Reviews

"This is my second time working with Alex and although we are only a few sessions in, I'm so grateful that I was able to reconnect with her. She challenges me to re-frame my negative and anxious thoughts and I've seen my anxiety improve significantly over the past year. I would highly recommend Alex. She is truly amazing!"

"I've been talking with Emily with a couple of months now. She has been amazingly supportive and thoughtful during our sessions. The tools and techniques she has shared with me for managing my anxiety have been incredibly valuable and will bring me benefits for the rest of my life."

Conclusion

The feeling of being overwhelmed by fear of what might happen is something you can move beyond with the right set of tools and support system. A combination of self-care techniques and therapy can play a major role in getting you to a point where you can manage and overcome your anticipatory anxiety. Take the first step to a life free from anxiety today.

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