Anticipatory anxiety is a maladaptive coping mechanism people use to try to prepare themselves for an unpleasant or traumatic event that may or may not take place in the future.
Anticipatory anxiety is maladaptive because:
- Research shows that, in general, we are not accurate predictors of how we will emotionally respond to real life occurrences. (For an overview, read Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert.)
- Anticipatory anxiety is often focused on events that might happen. If the event never happens, you’ve wasted a tremendous amount of emotional energy. And you may not know for certain the event is not going to happen until your dying day–what a depressing thought!
Coping techniques for anticipatory anxiety:
If the anxiety-provoking event will happen in the near future:
For example, you’re scheduled to give a public presentation–focus on what you can do to prepare. Preparation (for something real, not imagined!) is the best antidote to anxiety.
Actually, this is the very reason people often fall victim to anticipatory anxiety–they are maladaptively applying a coping mechanism that has worked well in the past for real events for which they could prepare.
In your preparation for an imminent anxiety-provoking event, use Mental Rehearsal and make certain you visualize yourself handling the situation well. If you start to focus on fear or anxiety, use Visualization to let that go. Take a break if you can’t distance from the anxious feelings.
Your anticipatory anxiety is often worse than the anxiety during the actual event, whether it’s something you have to do (such as giving a public presentation) or something you’re exposed to that frightens you (flying in an airplane). Your anxiety may peak just before and during the first few moments of the event (again, try to prepare for this with Mental Rehearsal, Visualization, and Relaxation Techniques), but the worst of it is over in a few minutes–certainly not worth hours of anticipatory anxiety!
If you’re prone to panic attacks, remember to do your diaphragmatic breathing, which is amazingly effective at warding off panic attacks. Some readers may remember back in the day when your doctor would give you a paper bag to breathe into when you received bad news–it’s the same concept as diaphragmatic breathing–slowing the intake of oxygen to balance O2 and carbon dioxide in your system so you don’t have a panic attack.
If a sad event will likely happen at some point in the future, but you have no idea when:
For example, you know one day someone close to you will die–have a simple plan of action, but don’t dwell on the event.
Under no circumstances should you try to mentally rehearse your grief and anticipate how you will feel afterward! This is the worst form of anticipatory anxiety!
There’s no way you can make a sad event easier by mentally rehearsing it!
In fact, this only emotionally tires you out such that a) you’re not fully enjoying life before the event occurs, and b) when the event does occur, you’re already emotionally exhausted and therefore ill-prepared to emotionally cope. Don’t spend your time before a sad event worrying about when it will happen and how you will feel. Instead, shore up your emotional resources when times are good so you will be better prepared when difficult times come. If you’ve been working on a Daily Routine, you’ll have the comfort of that routine during the worst of it.
You may also find that using the Filler Task technique is useful when you’re trying to break the habit of anticipatory anxiety.
For today, brush up on one (or more!) of the coping techniques I’ve suggested in this post, and start working on extinguishing anticipatory anxiety!
Want to share techniques that work for you?