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4 Ways to Combat Anticipatory Anxiety

Discover ways to calm yourself before an event.

Key points

  • Anticipatory anxiety can happen before an event or before you think something might happen.
  • Exercise significantly reduces anxiety, and the more you exercise, the greater the benefit.
  • To lessen anticipatory anxiety, answer your "what-ifs" with potential solutions and determine whether a thought is a fact or speculation.
Joice Kelly/Unsplash
Anticipatory anxiety can tell us things that aren't true.
Source: Joice Kelly/Unsplash

Anticipatory anxiety is the anxiety you feel before something happens or before you think something will happen.

It is normal to have anxiety before a big presentation, your first day of school, or any other event that has significance in your life.

Sometimes anticipatory anxiety can happen, and you’re not sure why. Your brain tends to go to worst-case scenarios when you have anticipatory anxiety. Read on for four ways you can help decrease your anticipatory anxiety.

Answer Your Worst-Case Scenarios

If you are experiencing a lot of “what-ifs” around an event, it can increase your anxiety level. Consider answering your “what-ifs” instead. Write down all your “what-ifs” — the things that could happen. Now answer each question with how you will handle that situation if it arises. Sometimes facing those “what-ifs” and coming up with a viable solution can help reduce anxiety. You are anxious about not waking up on time for work. Let’s look at the worst possible scenario: You show up late to work, and you’re fired. Then what? Well, you could find another job, maybe even a position that works better with your sleep schedule. The bottom line is that you will be okay.

Get Moving

When you are exercising, your level of anxiety decreases. The more intense your exercise is, the more significant relief you have from anxiety (Aylett et al., 2018). This effect happens whether you have elevated anxiety or a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

When you have anxiety, you may be itching to move but aren’t sure how to discharge that energy. Even taking a walk around the block can help reduce your anxiety. Part of why exercise is so effective for reducing anxiety is because it boosts dopamine and serotonin (Kim et al. 2021). Exercise also reduces pro-inflammatory cytokines (Ignácio et al., 2019). Cytokines help regulate the immune system.

Is It Fact or Speculation?

Anxiety can make your brain come up with some very creative ideas about the doom that might befall you. It can be challenging to tell what is real and what is something that might happen. When your brain goes into full worry mode, ask yourself if what you are thinking is fact or speculation.

Is it undeniably true, or is it something that your brain is creating? For example, you have two tickets to an event, and you ask a friend to go with you. Your friend can’t go, so you think to yourself, “What if I can’t find anyone to go with me?”

First, the facts are that you have two tickets to the concert, and one friend said they couldn’t go. That’s it. The rest is speculation. You can detach when you stop your thought process and ask yourself if it involves fact or speculation.

Come Up With a Solution That Is in Your Best Interest

If your brain is powerful enough to come up with a potentially harmful outcome, it also has the power to come up with a great outcome.

Think of what could happen if things went well. Ask yourself, “What is in my best interest?” You don’t know what will happen anyway, so why not choose to create a positive event? This technique works after an event as well. Thinking of something positive you learned from an experience can help you process it and reduce post-event anxiety.

Anxiety can be more easily managed when you can detach even somewhat from your anxiety. If you find that you are having anxiety more days than not or if it is impacting your quality of life, see a mental health professional.

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Aylett, E., Small, N., & Bower, P. (2018). Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice - a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC health services research, 18(1), 559.

Ignácio, Z. M., da Silva, R. S., Plissari, M. E., Quevedo, J., & Réus, G. Z. (2019). Physical exercise and neuroinflammation in major depressive disorder. Molecular neurobiology, 56(12), 8323-8335.

Kim, D. Y., Park, C. H., Kim, J. S., & Cheon, J. U. (2021). Effects of 16-week Combined Exercise on Blood Dopamine Concentrations, Functional Fitness and Qol in Patients with Parkinson's Disease. Journal of the Korean Applied Science and Technology, 38(4), 1081-1092.

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