Therapy Blog

Anticipatory Anxiety

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Ever get nervous about becoming uncomfortably anxious before you’re even in the anxiety-provoking situation? It’s like looking over your shoulder, wondering when your boss is going to catch you surfing the internet at work because you know that you’ll get in trouble for it. Anticipatory anxiety is not exactly classic fear though; it is more of a meta-fear, or ‘fear of fear.’ And while you may have seen terms like “Anticipatory Anxiety Disorder,” it is not so much of a disorder as it is a symptom of various types of anxiety like social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and performance anxiety. And it can be managed. And there are actually some healthy manifestations of it. Let’s talk about the difference between healthy and unhealthy anticipatory anxiety.

How can it be healthy?

I know a lot of eyebrows went up on that one, so I want to address it right away. When you’re standing in line for an exciting new roller coaster and you get those butterflies in your stomach, that’s a healthy, and fun version of anticipatory anxiety. Your body knows there’s some kind of risk implied with all of those loops and turns, but your mind knows that you’re safe and will be strapped in . . . your anticipation of defying gravity creates the heightened state of awareness (Remember, anxiety is just a heightened state of awareness).

Also, consider the following common situation when parenting tweens and teens benefit from leveraging anticipatory anxiety:

If you’ve said it once, you’ve said it a thousand times, “Hang up your backpack and jacket on the coat rack before playing your X-box!” but it just doesn’t seem to get through! If you have not followed through on any sort of consequences, then your kiddo has not learned that you’ll do anything to help them remember, so they continue to just toss their stuff on the floor for you to trip over.

Now we do not want our kids to fear us, that is unhealthy and can present some serious socializing problems. We do, however, want them to know that if they don’t hang their stuff up like we’ve told them, that there will be uncomfortable/inconvenient consequences every single time (consistency is the key here . . . see the Parenting post). So here is how we leverage anticipatory anxiety: Tell your kiddo that when they do not hang their stuff up, that you will immediately unplug the X-box, even if they are in a game (or after a 2-minute warning if you like). Then, you MUST follow through (and if you give them a warning, you MUST follow through exactly after that specific time interval–not after they “finish this round” or “get to a save point”). After a few times of having their X-box unplugged and losing their progress, they will begin to look over their shoulder if they do not hang their stuff up . . . in other words, they will be anticipating your follow through and anxiously be looking for you. Now there is an incentive for them to just make things easy and bypass the anticipatory anxiety by simply hanging up their backpack and jacket. (This also works great if they have friends over as the friends will nag them to just hang up their stuff–in essence, their friends become your best allies!).

The key here is calm, consistent follow-through on your part . . . otherwise, your words become empty threats that carry no incentive to change.

I can almost hear the wheels turning now on how to leverage this dynamic of anticipatory anxiety. Don’t overdo it though, anything in excess becomes toxic.

When it is toxic

I have mentioned in other posts what my mother referred to as “borrowing trouble.” It’s where you start becoming anxious about something that has not even happened. It differs from healthy anticipatory anxiety in that there is no evidence that the feared outcome will even occur. In relationships (social, romantic and/or professional) this can lead to anticipatory defensiveness, where you become defensive before a conversation has even begun.

When you become anxious about becoming anxious, or fearful of fear, you enter into a toxic mindset that is not conducive to successful outcomes. You may find yourself engaged in an argument with somebody that is not even in the room, or talking yourself out of doing something new without giving yourself a chance to even see what happens.

How to deal with anticipatory anxiety

When you are able to, leverage it (see the parenting example). Otherwise, use your mindfulness practice to help you become aware of what is really going on behind the anticipatory anxiety. Usually, you will find that there is another fear, often rooted in the unconscious mind, that explains why you are trying to protect yourself from an invisible threat. As you become clear on this, remind yourself that anxiety of any type is simply a heightened state of awareness that is trying to help you pay attention so that you can protect yourself from a potential threat. In the case of anticipatory anxiety, however, the alert is backfiring because the actual circumstance has not occurred and therefore poses no threat. You can leverage your mindfulness by planning for how to respond should the anxiety provoking circumstance actually arise. For example, if you are anxious about going to a party with co-workers, but you are not sure if you’ll fit in, you can consider how to head out a bit early should anxiety kick in. Frequently, just knowing that there are options for you helps you not experience the actual feared situation in the first place. Of course, breathe and practice some relaxation techniques like progressive relaxation.

Mindfulness also means really taking stock of your experience. What is your body telling you? Are you breathing calmly? Are you borrowing trouble? Are your thoughts going 1000 miles per hour, or are you calmly contemplating your situation? Try to keep in mind that borrowing trouble does not somehow endow you with the ability to predict the future, although the trouble being borrowed may have you convinced that you can. You cannot.

What you are going for with this mindfulness practice guided by self-examination is a grasp on reality that gives you just a glimmer of relief, even if only for a moment. With practice, the relief lasts longer, and the episodes of anxiety diminish. You’ll notice that most often, your circumstances are not as dire as they may seem when you magnify them with borrowed trouble.

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