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How to Cope With Anticipatory Anxiety

Common reasons we unintentionally reinforce stress and uncertainty.

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Anticipatory anxiety occurs when you feel dread and fear about an upcoming event, and limited information is available to you. While not a standalone mental health diagnosis, anticipatory anxiety is a symptom of other conditions including panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

The good news is anxiety is highly treatable.

Create a Calm Plan and a Relaxation Routine

When you focus on bringing peace into your day, you’re acting with intention, and not reacting defensively. The two most important variables are finding what works for you, and sticking with a consistent schedule. Your body’s stress signals let you know when something doesn’t feel right. And slowing physiologic arousal can reduce anticipatory anxiety. Common relaxation practices include:

Be Mindful About Your Thought Process

Mindfulness brings awareness to the present. Think of this as paying attention to what you pay attention to. When you record your thoughts you’re better able to see patterns. Anxiety is a future-oriented emotion. People who struggle often default to catastrophizing. For example, it’s not a headache causing the pain in-between your ears, but a brain tumor. Or, you cancel social plans because you believe nobody will be interested in your point of view and everyone will think you’re a loser.

Track your thoughts. A common practice of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is recording your thoughts, followed by the subsequent feelings, and how your feelings then inform your actions.

For example:

  • Thought: If things don’t go as planned, I will be miserable.
  • Feelings: Hopeless, afraid, worried, unsafe, unmotivated.
  • Behaviors: Isolating from friends and family, avoidance of activities you formerly enjoyed, refusal to engage in problem-solving.

Here’s an example of a reframed thought:

  • Thought: Although I don’t like uncertainty and I’m worried about the future, I have agency over how much time and energy I spend worrying.
  • Feelings: Hopeful, somewhat sad, less worried, and more feelings of being in control.
  • Behaviors: Asking “Am I being realistic?” Focusing on what's going well in your life, and choosing problem-solving over excessive worrying.

Watch for polarizing language such as “always,” “never,” “complete failure,” “total success,” “everybody,” “nobody,” etc. Instead, find the gray areas. The time you flubbed the work presentation was a moment in time, not an indelible mark on your skillset. The breakup that “came out of nowhere” may be a blessing in disguise in the form of tightening up your relationship boundaries.

Check your control fallacies. This distortion involves believing you are in complete control of every situation, by internal or external means. The fallacy of internal control means you see yourself as responsible for the suffering and happiness of those around you. For example, “I must have done something to upset you. How can I make this right for you?”

When we feel externally controlled, we view ourselves as helpless victims of fate. For example, “The world is such a dangerous and unpredictable place. I can’t trust anyone. I don’t feel safe.”

Scroll social media and news outlets mindfully. Anxious people are wired to look for “proof” that their negative predictions are correct. Pre-emptive worrying, worst-case scenario seeking, and the habit of a “mind full” versus a mindful existence are the culprits. Instead, get comfortable with allowing the truth to unfold. When you let go of your need to know what’s coming, you’ll find things usually work in your favor.

Practice anxiety affirmations when your stress levels rise.

  • “I have love and support from others.”
  • “I will not take on the weight of the world.”
  • “I am a capable problem-solver. I have options.”
  • “I will let go of those things outside my control.”
  • “I will inhale the good and exhale the bad energy.”
  • “Every day I have a choice to practice peace of mind.”
  • “My track record for overcoming anxiety attacks is 100%.”

Seek Help

Mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) are common strategies to reduce anticipatory anxiety. Working with a therapist trained in CBT may help you identify what your anxiety triggers. You can also learn to notice unhealthy thought patterns that distort your view of reality. The Psychology Today Therapy Directory can help you find a qualified clinician.

Copyright 2020, Linda Esposito, LCSW.

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