Understanding Anticipatory Anxiety & How To Cope With It
Updated May 21, 2020
Reviewer Aaron Dutil
Anticipatory anxiety is when a person experiences worry and fear when thinking about an event that may or may not occur in the future. This is particularly debilitating, as it can begin anywhere from minutes to years before an anticipated event. Likewise, the intensity can vary from person to person and event to event. Anticipatory anxiety is not a condition itself, but a symptom of other conditions. While it may begin as worry over a specific event, it can transform into a phobia of having another panic attack, prompting a continuation of anxious thinking. 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.
Understanding Anticipatory Anxiety
During attacks of anticipatory anxiety, individuals are drowned in potentials of what may happen during an event. They usually sort 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 making a speech, many individuals experience the usual side effects of heart racing, 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, most often a heart attack or seizure. When the occasion nears, those with chronic 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 most loved friends and family.
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 its condition, but a symptom of other conditions, such as generalized anxiety or panic disorder. 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, where individuals develop a phobia of situations that may cause a panic attack, causing 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 fretting what is to come in the next moment, hour, or day. However, sometimes it can be more complicated. The tension creeps itself 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. Often, speaking to a therapist will be helpful.
Can You Overcome It?
Everyone fears some events in life. However, for those with anticipatory anxiety, it is important to face these 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, the anticipatory anxiety is likely to diminish as it becomes increasingly clear that it is often unwarranted. With a little effort, you can be like the nearly 37% of Americans that get help managing and overcoming their anxiety.
In addition to working on yourself through therapy, sometimes medication is required to successfully manage anticipatory anxiety. One popular treatment for anxiety is the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs. Your psychiatrist or physician may also recommend using benzodiazepines, common anti-anxiety drugs. Work together with a professional to determine if you need or would get relief from your anxiety and panic symptoms with these medications.
While medication may be needed to help you fully manage your anxiety symptoms, here are some tips and tricks that can help get you through your bouts of anticipatory anxiety.
- 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. Learning to relax can keep your anxiety at bay and can even work to defuse panic attacks. Find a relaxation technique that works for you, whether it is yoga, meditation, journaling, or using deep breathing exercises.
- Practice Gratitude. Practicing gratitude daily can retrain your brain to focus on positive emotions and thoughts, rather than the negative input that comes with anticipatory anxiety. Actively finding things to be grateful for and focusing on the positive can reduce the anxious uncomfortable feelings that come with anticipatory anxiety.
- Have Compassion for Yourself. If you find yourself struggling 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 Help. Dealing with 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. Both cognitive behavioral therapy and panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy have proven beneficial in coping with and overcoming anticipatory anxiety. With cognitive behavioral therapy, a therapist 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.
Having a therapist in your corner that is ready to support you on your efforts to overcome your anticipatory anxiety can be a key factor in your success. The licensed and certified counselors of BetterHelp are here for you. Having an online therapist means you can discuss your problems 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. Thousands have overcome their issues with anxiety with the help of their BetterHelp counselors. Check out some reviews of BetterHelp counselors below.
"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."
The feeling of being overwhelmed by fear of what might happen, and struggling with the fear of fear itself is something you can win over 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.