Ever feel intense fear or dread about an upcoming event? Your mind won’t shut off. You stay awake, tossing and turning, replaying every worst-case scenario, and you feel anxious and irritable sometimes for weeks or months leading up to it. What you’re experiencing might be anticipatory anxiety. If you’re experiencing this, the good news is that your anxious feelings are treatable. Read on to learn about 8 strategies for anticipatory anxiety that will help calm your nerves.
What Is Anticipatory Anxiety?
Anticipatory anxiety occurs when you feel dread and fear about a future event. For example, you have a vacation planned, and you’re worried about how it will go, or you have an upcoming test and feel anxious. While it’s not a mental health diagnosis alone, it is a symptom of other conditions, like generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and panic disorder.
What Are the Symptoms of Anticipatory Anxiety?
Like generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, anticipatory anxiety involves both emotional and physical symptoms;
- Increased heart rate
- Chest pain
- Muscle spasms
- Sweaty palms
- Anticipating the worst
- Feelings of dread and intense fear
- Difficulty concentrating
- Upset stomach
- Feelings of apprehension
- Restlessness and irritability
- Decision paralysis
- Fatigue or insomnia
What Causes Anticipatory Anxiety?
Since everyone’s experience with anxiety is different, it’s challenging to know what exactly causes it. But experts believe a combination of both genetic and environmental factors play a role;
- Childhood experiences including physical or emotional abuse, having a relative with anxiety, neglect, bullying, or losing a parent.
- Current life factors including socioeconomic status, pressure, uncertainty, isolation, housing problems, support, etc.
- Anxiety can co-occur with other mental health disorders, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.
- Medications can also play a part.
8 Self Help Strategies for Anticipatory Anxiety
1. Challenge your thoughts
It may feel impossible to believe, but your thoughts are not always reliable or accurate. They may appear so, but when you challenge them, you learn you can change their tone and even their outcome. So, when you’re feeling anxious about an upcoming event, challenge your thoughts by stopping what you’re doing and checking in with yourself.
- Bring awareness to your mind-body connection
- Identify your emotions when your dread occurs (anxious, worried, etc.)
- Identify how your body feels (muscle spasms, headaches, etc.)
Building your self-awareness allows you to increase your window of tolerance – the moment where you can receive and process information without reacting.
2. Prioritize a relaxing routine
Get ahead of your anxiety by prioritizing a routine that brings you calm and balance. For example, start your day with yoga, meditation, journaling, or progressive muscle relaxation. When you find what works for you and dedicate yourself to consistently practicing it, you will start to move through each day with intention rather than defense. You’ll notice your triggers and will have more time to respond instead of reacting to future events.
3. Refocus your anxiety
Sometimes one of the best strategies for anticipatory anxiety is to distract yourself from your anxious thoughts. Examples of healthy distractions include speaking to a friend, getting out in nature, watching a feel-good movie, reading a book, or anything that brings joy.
4. Investigate your anxiety
When you’re anxious, your mind can get quite creative about all the potentials you fear might happen. These fears can make it challenging to discover what is real and what you’re speculating about. For example, if you have an upcoming meeting and you’re worried, “What if I blow it and I get fired? ask yourself, “Is what I’m thinking a fact or speculation?” First, the facts are you have a career and an upcoming meeting, but the rest is speculation. Investigating your anxiety can help you detach and feel better about the future.
5. Brainstorm positive solutions
If your brain can create potentially harmful outcomes, it also has the power to change gears and think about the best-case scenarios. It may be challenging to practice at first, but thinking about what best serves your interest will teach your anxiety to chill before it ruminates about every worst-case scenario. For example, if you’re worried about an upcoming vacation, think about all the events that could go right. Perhaps you make lasting memories with your family, you feel more relaxed, and maybe you might cross an item off your bucket list.
6. Answer your anxiety
What if I don’t pass this test and I have to change careers? What if my partner and I can’t recover from our fight, and I will be alone forever? These what-ifs can keep you stuck in an endless thought trap. To remove their hold on you, journal your what-if statements and answer them. For example, if you’re worried about an upcoming meeting, write all of your fears. Then create a solution for every fear that will help you cope if it occurs. This technique will help calm your nerves by teaching your flight-or-flight response that no matter what happens, you can not only survive but thrive.
7. Take charge
When you feel anxious, you may experience decision paralysis or feel too afraid to take any action. Unfortunately, this procrastination only leads to more anxiety. Therefore, take baby steps towards addressing your fears. For example, if you’re worried about an upcoming interview, ask a friend to rehearse questions and answers with you. Or, if you’re worried about your relationship, schedule a time to discuss your concerns with your partner. Every little step forward helps.
8. Increase your overall health
Anxiety can be more challenging to cope with if your basic needs aren’t met.
- Make daily exercise a habit. Exercise can reduce your anxiety by giving you an outlet to release that built-up energy.
- Remove caffeine. Caffeine’s jittery affects can increase your vulnerability to anxiety attacks.
- Prioritize your sleep. Anxiety has a tricky effect on your sleep – you’re either battling insomnia or extreme fatigue. Therefore, ensuring you get sufficient sleep will help decrease anticipatory anxiety.
When to Seek Help
While these strategies for anticipatory anxiety are helpful, if you feel like your anxiety is impacting your wellbeing and ability to function, consider speaking to a mental health professional. Cognitive behavior therapy and mindfulness are two modalities that are instrumental in challenging cognitive distortions, learning your triggers, and improving your behaviors. Your feelings of dread and anxiety are highly treatable and don’t need to affect your life forever.
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