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Anxiety Is All About Anticipation!

Evidence from Emotion Science.

Take a few seconds to remember the last time that you felt very anxious about doing a task (ideally, think of one that you ended up completing). Perhaps it was going to a doctor’s appointment, or giving a presentation at school or work, or asking someone out. See if you can remember how you felt right before the task. What kinds of thoughts were you having? Were you generating a succession of catastrophic scenarios? (“I’m going to find out that I have a serious disease,” “The presentation is going to be a disaster,” “My date will find me boring and unattractive”). How did your body feel, particularly when you were having this type of thought? Was your heart racing? Were your palms sweating? Was your breathing getting shallower?

Now, try to remember how you felt when you actually engaged in that task. I bet that your anxiety started to go down as soon as you stopped anticipating the task and started doing it. You might wonder how I know this. Simple. That’s how anxiety works. Every time.

There is ample evidence suggesting that anxiety is always more intense during the anticipation than the performance phase. For example, in a study by Davidson and colleagues (2000), the authors recruited participants with social anxiety and healthy controls. Participants were told that they would have to give a speech in front of an audience of experts who would be evaluating them. The timeline for this experiment was as follows:

1) Resting baseline (1 minute).

2) Anticipation phase: participants waited to receive instructions on the specific topic they were to talk about (3 minutes).

3) Preparation phase: participants came up with their speech (2 minutes).

4) Speech phase: participants delivered the speech (6 minutes).

The researchers measured participants’ subjective anxiety and physiological reactivity. They found that participants with social anxiety experienced an increase in subjective anxiety from the baseline to the anticipation phase, but that it started going down as soon as the speech began. In contrast, healthy participants did not evidence any changes in anxiety (which makes sense, because they were not afraid of public speaking). Interestingly, when analyzing physiological arousal, the investigators found that participants in both groups experienced an acceleration in their heart rate during the anticipation period. This heart rate also began to go down as soon as participants started talking.

If the researchers had stopped their assessment during the anticipation phase, they might have erroneously concluded that the elevated anticipatory anxiety would also characterize the speech phase. In other words, they would not have been able to gather evidence of the decline in anxiety. I am bringing this up because when we feel anxious in the anticipation of a task, we are very tempted to avoid it altogether. But if we do, we never get to experience that the anxiety during the event will be much lower than what we were experiencing during its anticipation. This is why, when we feel anxious it is super important that we approach (rather than avoid) those situations that generate anxiety. Only by doing this will we learn (at a deep, visceral level) that the anticipatory phase is always worse than the performance phase.

You might wonder why anxiety is higher during the anticipation of a task than during the actual task. This is because anxiety is an emotion about the future. Think about it. We always feel anxious about things that are about to happen (“Will I get that promotion?” “Will I be able to avoid spending time with an obnoxious relative?” “Will I get a good grade?”). Conversely, we don’t feel anxiety about the past or the present. Thus, it makes sense that anxiety would be at its highest when we are anticipating the future. Once the future becomes the present, anxiety becomes less intense.

Having an emotion about the future might seem paradoxical since we live in the present. However, we enact behaviors in the present because we want to achieve certain goals in the future. We stay late at work because we want to get a good performance review at the end of the quarter. We study for an exam because we want to get good grades. Anxiety reflects uncertainty and can therefore be a powerful motivator of behavior. As our anxiety goes up, it makes us question our ability to achieve goals. When this uncertainty leads us to work harder, anxiety can be very adaptive.

Now, because anxiety can be a powerful motivator of behavior, it doesn’t mean that it always is. When anxiety gets to be too intense (likely because we are having difficulties regulating it), it might lead us to avoid the very same things we care about. So, although anxiety can help us pursue our goals, it can only do so if properly regulated (I will post about regulating anxiety in great detail soon – it’s my area of expertise ;-).

Here’s a thought. As you go through your day, try to notice if you feel your anxiety waxing and waning as the future becomes the present. You can measure your anxiety by relying on this rating scale that I use in my lab. Notice if your anxiety rating decreases from the anticipation phase to the performance phase of various tasks.

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Copyright © Amelia Aldao 2014

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