Coping With Anticipatory Anxiety

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If you have anticipatory anxiety, you are fearful for an extended period of time about an imagined future situation you perceive as an unpredictable threat.

This mental health condition is usually not seen as a specific disorder, but rather a symptom of certain anxiety-related disorders, including panic disorder, generalized anxiety, and social phobia.

Your anxious feelings can reach a peak in the hours before a scheduled event or last for months prior to a situation that may or may not happen.

Symptoms

If you know that you will soon need to face the object of your fear, you might develop physical and emotional symptoms, such as:

  • Hyperventilating
  • Chest pain
  • Muscle spasms
  • Rumination
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of apprehension

Anticipatory anxiety can be extremely life-limiting as you search for ways to avoid the experiences you fear.

It can put stress on your personal relationships because you're distracted and appear self-absorbed. You may also find it compromises your ability to function competently at work if you are consistently distracted.

Phasic Fear vs. Anticipatory Anxiety

Phasic fear lasts for a short time and is a reaction to a predictable threat. Anticipatory anxiety, in contrast, lasts a longer time and is a reaction to an unpredictable threat. In a study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, neuroscientists using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning technology discovered these two types of fear are not the same because they activate different parts of the brain.

Types of Anticipatory Anxiety

Certainly we've all experienced anticipatory anxiety at one time or another—before a job interview, first date, school exam, or a major trip—but if you or someone you love struggles with one of the following anxiety disorders, anticipatory anxiety can go beyond the limits of what people normally experience prior to something new or out of their comfort zone.

Panic Attacks

When you suffer from anticipatory panic attacks, you are constantly worrying about your next attack—When will it happen and what will occur? Will it happen when I'm driving? Will it cause me to get into a car accident? Will it happen it a store? Will I embarrass myself? Will I be able to get home?

The fear of having a panic attack can be linked to any life situation or event (big or small). In severe cases, this type of anticipatory anxiety can prevent you from leaving the safety of your home, a fear known as agoraphobia.

Fear of Flying (Aerophobia)

When you have flight anxiety, you are perceiving the present and experiencing fear in real-time. You are sitting in a seat on a real plane and worrying about the takeoff or you might feel anxious if you hear a strange noise in flight.

In contrast, if you have anticipatory anxiety about flying, you are afraid of an imaginary plane and what might happen if you get on the plane—imagining one or a variety of possible in-flight disasters.

Social Phobia

If you have anticipatory social phobia, you may feel anxious about work or social events that aren't even scheduled to happen. For example, you may be imagining yourself giving a speech with people judging you or saying the wrong thing when meeting a new person.

Coping Strategies

In addition to getting help and seeking proper treatment for your specific type of anxiety, there are some general techniques you can do to stay calm and better cope with anticipatory anxiety. Experiment with one or two and see which works best for you.

Get Enough Sleep

Getting a sufficient amount of sleep may help ameliorate anticipatory anxiety, but not getting enough could exacerbate the situation, according to UC Berkley neuroscientists. This is because a lack of sleep fires up the regions of your brain associated with processing emotions such as the amygdala and the insular cortex.

Sleep and anxiety can form a vicious cycle because people who suffer from anxiety can have trouble sleeping. Then, the resulting sleep deprivation can make them more anxious.

Develop Your Relaxation Response

Whether deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), guided imagery, or meditation, having a handful of relaxation techniques at your ready can help you focus on the present and reduced your level of anticipatory anxiety.

Talk to Yourself Like You Would a Friend

What would you tell a loved one or trusted friend if they were feeling anxious about something that hasn’t even happened? You would likely be kind and offer support—and you should use compassionate words with yourself, too.

Self-compassion can help prevent you from feeling isolated, make you more mindful, quell that inner critic, and motivate you to recognize and face your fears. 

For example, you might assure a friend with anticipatory anxiety about flying that it's OK to be afraid and that there is a less than a 1% chance of getting on a flight headed for disaster.

Distract Yourself

Sometimes it's helpful to just make yourself focus on something other than your anxious thoughts. Healthy distraction activities can include going for a walk, listening to music, doing some quick chores, watching a funny video on YouTube, reading a book, or calling a friend.

Face Your Fear

Ask yourself: What am I really anxious about? How likely is it that my fears will come true? Once you identify your anxiety, you can work to change your thought process. For example, remind yourself that you thought the flight was safe enough to make the reservation. Tell yourself to stop thinking about it and that you're going to get on that flight no matter what.

Reframe Your Thinking

You can use reframing to overcome faulty thought patterns and change your perception of a feared situation. For example, if it's the fear of turbulence that keeps you up at night, remind yourself that the best place for you to be in turbulence is in your seat with your seatbelt on.

A Word From Verywell

If these self-help strategies aren't cutting it, set up an appointment with a mental health professional. Together, you can work to formulate a treatment plan that might include medication, therapy, and coping techniques. With a little practice and professional help, you can learn to manage your anticipatory anxiety, pick up a more positive outlook, and enjoy the many experiences of life.

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