Have you ever felt that sense of nervousness knowing that there is something looming ahead of you?
It may feel like a weight in the pit of your stomach or it may be the worry of what is to come floating around in your mind.
It’s the feeling you get knowing that there is something you will need to do or experience in the future that may not go well.
That thing you need to do may be giving a speech, a social event, a job interview, a date, or trying something new that you’re not familiar with.
That feeling is called anticipatory anxiety – and everyone will experience it at some point. It’s not unusual or unexpected.
Anticipatory anxiety should not be confused with a panic disorder, anxiety disorder, or other mental disorders.
Anticipatory anxiety can certainly be a part of a variety of mental illnesses and disorders to the point where it is debilitating. It can also contribute to mental unwellness or instability by feeding into disorders.
A couple of examples include:
A person with agoraphobia may find themselves not going out because of the amplified fear of what may happen if they leave the safety of their home.
A person with a panic disorder may be overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings about all of the things that could go wrong with whatever it is they need to do and experience a panic attack.
But! An understanding of anticipatory anxiety and how to minimize its impact can provide benefits to everyone, regardless of their mental health.
Identifying And Isolating Anticipatory Anxiety
The identification of anticipatory anxiety is relatively simple. The first contributing factor is a thing that needs to be done. That thing is likely to be something out of the ordinary for your life.
You would expect to feel nervous and anxious if you have to give a speech at a friend’s wedding or have a big job interview coming up.
Mundane activities, such as going to the grocery store or taking the dog for a walk, should not evoke fear and anxiety.
If they do, that is something that should be discussed with a certified medical professional to get to the root of why you are experiencing such severe discomfort.
Isolate and identify the thing that is causing the anxiety. Is it an activity? An expectation? Is it something new? What is the root of the discomfort specifically?
Acknowledge Your Thoughts And Feelings
The acknowledgment of one’s thoughts and feelings is to accept that we are feeling and experiencing them.
There are some people who try to brute force down these feelings by denying they exist, telling themselves those feelings aren’t important, and aren’t worth examining.
It’s a bad idea to try to suppress negative feelings because you don’t actually process and experience them that way.
Instead, you wind up burying them, which causes them to linger and generally make things worse in the long run.
This is especially important for people with mental illnesses. Attempting to brute force these emotions down can trigger distress, unwellness, or make present unwellness worse.
You feel what you feel and that’s okay.
Strip Negative Thoughts Of Their Power
The act of dwelling on thoughts and emotions gives them more power and strength, not in any kind of metaphorical sense, but in the sense that it enables catastrophic thinking.
What begins as a small spark of flame can rapidly expand into a raging wildfire of difficult thoughts and emotions.
The more you think about a source of discomfort or anxiety, the more fuel you throw on the fire, the more intensely and rapidly it burns, the worse it’s going to be.
The technique of stripping negative thoughts of their power is rooted in two principles.
1. In all likelihood, it’s far worse in your mind than it will be in reality.
Thoughts and feelings can get away from you as you dwell on them.
If you think about and ruminate on how bad things are or how they are going to go wrong, you’re going to continuously come up with more and more ways that they can go wrong.
At some point, you’ll cross a boundary from plausible into scenarios that are just not likely to happen.
2. Acknowledging the ways in which things may go right.
Anticipatory anxiety is fueled by focusing on the negatives and everything that can possibly go wrong.
One way to counter this perception and way of thinking is by balancing it against everything that can possibly go right.
Maybe you’ll nail the interview and get a job offer.
Maybe your speech will go off without a hitch and everyone will love it.
Maybe that chance you’re thinking about taking will pay off in a big way that you can’t anticipate.
Maybe good things are right around the corner!
There are many ways in which things could happen in this complicated journey we call life. You don’t want to avoid all of the negative emotions or anxiousness that you may feel, but you can try to counterbalance it with reasonable positives.
BUT… avoid fake positivity. Fake positivity contributes to building unrealistic expectations and disappointment, which can fuel anxiety if things don’t work how they’ve been built up. Fake positivity is just as bad as catastrophic negativity.
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Redirecting Negative Energy Into Positive
The ability to redirect one’s negative thoughts and emotions into something positive is a skill.
Like all skills, it’s something that needs to be practiced and developed. The more you practice and develop that skill, the easier and more effective it gets.
It’s important to acknowledge that it is a skill that takes time and effort to get better at. The person who has been working on redirecting their negative thoughts and emotions for six months is going to have better results than the person just starting out.
Don’t expect it to work miracles or give up after the first time or three.
Take those negative thoughts and emotions and throw yourself into something productive and positive that you can focus on.
Some suggestions include crossword puzzles, logic puzzles, a video game that requires thought, cleaning, reading, journaling or writing, or just sitting down to watch a favorite show.
Active, guided meditation can also work well.
The idea is to derail your mind from the train of thoughts that are negative and anxious and put them on any other track at all.
You may find that your mind tries to go back to those negative thoughts. When that happens, you continue to redirect and focus on whatever activity is in front of you so as to keep your mind off of those anxious thoughts.
You should find that the intensity of the anxiousness relaxes and softens in intensity.
Combating Anxiety In The Amygdala
Anxiety has its roots in two places. So far we’ve focused on anxiety based around thoughts of an upcoming event.
But anxiety also comes from a place in the brain with more ancient origins: the amygdala.
The amygdala is the part of your brain that is responsible for your fight/flight/freeze response. It responds to stimuli from your senses without you having to consciously think about it.
Importantly, the amygdala cannot be reasoned with. You cannot calm the anxious feelings it is responsible for by thinking it away.
So, along with the above approach which tackles thought-based anticipatory anxiety, you will likely need to calm your amygdala too.
Here are three exercises that can help:
1. Slow, deep breathing.
You probably know from experience that your breathing impacts how you feel.
Taking slow, deep breaths activates the parasympathetic nervous system and reduces activation in the amygdala.
Diaphragmatic breathing is an effective way to breathe slowly and deeply. To practice it, breath in so that your stomach pushes outwards and then release the breath and allow your stomach to fall.
2. Relax your muscles.
When anxious, you might find that certain muscle groups around your body tense up. This often happens without you even noticing.
Turn your attention to your body and isolate one area at a time starting with your head and face, then your neck and shoulders, and slowly working your way down the body.
Notice any muscles that are tensed. Then consciously relax them so that they feel heavy and unsupported. Let gravity be your guide as to whether you are successfully relaxing a muscle; it should feel like it is being pulled toward the ground.
3. Mindfulness meditation.
Simply being aware of the present moment can help to calm the amygdala and reduce the anticipatory anxiety you are feeling.
The breathing and muscle relaxation exercises above are actually great ways to practice mindfulness, but you can also focus on an object, a sound, or anything that retains your conscious awareness in the present moment.
Anticipatory anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction to uncertain or important circumstances on the horizon, but it’s not going to be something that is debilitating for most people.
If your anxiety and fear is so great that it’s overwhelming or preventing you from taking action, it is worth talking to a mental health professional about. You may require more focused intervention and assistance.