Sweet Emotion

The science of emotion regulation

Emotion Experiment: Understanding Anticipatory Anxiety

Let's do an emotion experiment together!

In the past days, I have continued to hear from many of you regarding the post on anticipatory anxiety, so I though that today we could do a brief experiment together. Remember the emotion rating scale we used? If not, here it is:

The lowest end of the scale represents the most relaxed you’ve ever been. The highest end corresponds to a full-blown anxiety attack where you can barely breathe, your heart is pounding, you’re sweating profusely, etc.

We will be using a 4-step rating system:

  1. What is your anxiety level now? (resting anxiety) –> write it on a piece of paper.
  2. Now, think of something you have to do later today or tomorrow that makes you a bit nervous. Perhaps it entails giving a presentation at work, going on a date, or calling your family. Try to picture this event in your mind as vividly as possible. You may want to close your eyes. What is your anxiety level now? (distant anticipatory anxiety) –> write it on a piece of paper.
  3. Let’s fast forward to the moment right before you engage in this anxiety provoking task. What is your anxiety level now? (proximal anticipatory anxiety) –> write it on a piece of paper.
  4. Let’s fast forward to when you start engaging in the task. When you can, try to come back to the anxiety rating scale. What is your anxiety level now? (performance anxiety) –> write it on a piece of paper.

The graph below plots how this usually goes. Anxiety is highest during anticipation and it begins to go down as soon as you start engaging in the task. In other words, anticipatory anxiety > performance anxiety.

The dotted line in the chart below shows what we usually think will happen with our anxiety. Because it increases during the anticipatory period, we tend to predict that it will continue to rise during the task performance. This thought makes us wants to avoid the task altogether. But if we avoid the task, we leave with the idea that our anxiety would have continued to rise. We are then likely to think of our anxiety as out of control. We begin to fear it. Conversely, if we do engage in the task, we get to experience a wonderful decrease in anxiety. We learn that this task was not as bad as we had thought. And next time we have to do it, our anticipatory anxiety will not rise as steeply as it did today (it will still rise a bit because this process of exposure takes time, but it will certainly get better).

The key to managing our anxiety is to confront those anxiety provoking situations over and over again. The more we do it, the more we learn that our anxiety is never as bad as we expect it to be. I like to think about this as going to an “emotion gym.” Just like the more you go to the gym, the more in shape you get, the more you confront your anxiety, the less powerful it becomes. This, in a nutshell, is the mechanism by which exposure (i.e., cognitive behavioral therapy) for anxiety works.

Today, I’d like to invite you to try this exercise and see what you can learn about your anxiety. I thought it might be fun to use a hashtag: #ifacemyfears

Have fun! Until next time.

Don't forget to follow me on Twitter: @drameliaaldao

Amelia Aldao, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University and the director of the Psychopathology and Affective Sciences Lab.

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