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Anticipatory Anxiety–What It Is, Why You Get It, How to Cope

Anticipatory anxiety happens before you do something that you think will make you panicky. Learn about anticipatory anxiety at HealthyPlace--what it is, why it happens, and how to cope--before you panic over something that hasn't happened yet . . . again.

What is anticipatory anxiety? If you’re struggling with anxiety over the anticipation of an upcoming situation, you’re experiencing anticipatory anxiety and you’re not alone. Most of us face anxiety about future events at some point or another. Sometimes it’s mild and other times it may feel downright debilitating. I’ll share with you some key steps I take to cope with anticipatory anxiety.

What Is Anticipatory Anxiety?

Anticipatory anxiety is a symptom of certain anxiety disorders such as panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. It shows up in the fearful feelings we have before a situation or event has occurred. For example, you might have a feeling of dread about public speaking, a new job, or flying on an airplane. And if you suffer from panic disorder, anticipatory anxiety can present as panic about having a potential panic attack in that future situation.

Why Do We Experience Anticipatory Anxiety?

Anxiety is triggered in different ways and causes of anticipatory anxiety may vary. We’re biologically built to respond in fight or flight mode when faced with a situation that signals danger. In the case of anticipatory anxiety, our fear response may be activated by something that may not have gone well in the past.

Anticipatory anxiety can also surface when we think about something that we haven’t experienced. Consider the fear of flying. You might build stories in your head about what could happen, even before you step foot on a plane. This is because our thoughts inform our anxiety. We ask ourselves so many “what if” questions that feed our anxiety further.

So what do we do?

How to Cope with Anticipatory Anxiety

These suggestions are based on my personal experience in coping with anticipatory anxiety about public speaking, family conflicts, and work-related issues.

  1. Prepare with self-care. Proper self-care is critical, but this doesn’t have to mean taking a hot bath. Sometimes self-care is visiting a therapist or taking time to plan your week into manageable steps.
  2. Seek out support. It can be easy to get caught up in our own heads when it comes to anticipatory anxiety. I know I can get quite self-critical. It helps to have a friend to talk to when you’re in a panic to offer support.
  3. Shed limiting beliefs. Take a moment to ask yourself what you’re telling yourself to make yourself feel so anxious. What thoughts are you having? Is it true or only partially true? How do you know? If it’s only partially true, what else is true that might give perspective to the unhelpful thoughts you may be having (How to Let Go of Limiting Beliefs).
  4. Practice compassionate self-talk. If you had a friend who was feeling anxious, you probably wouldn’t say to your friend, “Yeah, you do suck. It’s going to be awful. You’re going to be a mess.” You’d offer kind, compassionate support. Use compassionate words with yourself.
  5. Find calm in your body. I know how much my body can feel like the enemy when I’m anxious. If I solely focus on butterflies in my stomach, tension in my chest, a locked throat, and a racing heartbeat, I’m likely to give fuel to the anxiety. Scan your body for any part that feels calm, grounded, or neutral and bring your attention there. Even if it’s your little finger, you can use that as an anchor to ground you before and during a triggering situation (An Anxiety Relief Exercise That Uses Your Body as a Resource).

As always, if you suffer from anticipatory anxiety that is chronic and debilitating, please seek support from a licensed therapist.

Do you experience anticipatory anxiety? How do you cope with anticipatory anxiety?

Author: Melissa Renzi

Find Melissa on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and on her blog.

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