Anticipatory Anxiety

Health Writer

It happens when you worry about some event in the future. You usually anticipate the worst possible outcome and then dwell on that possibility. The more you think about it, the worse the outcome becomes until you want nothing more than to avoid the whole situation.

Anticipatory anxiety is intense worrying about a future event. It frequently occurs before a public performance, test or social situation but can happen before any feared event. Many people with anxiety disorders have episodes of anticipatory anxiety. The symptoms are the same as with anxiety:

  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Feeling as if you are going to faint
  • Dizziness
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle tenseness

This type of anxiety episode can be acute, lasting only a short time, or could last for months. When it continues over an extended time, it can cause health problems, such as high blood pressure or can cause irritability and the inability to focus. Your preoccupation with the upcoming event can cause problems in your work and relationships.

Anticipatory anxiety frequently occurs for one of two reasons:

  • You don't think you can handle the outcome
  • You worry about what other people think of you

You probably use phrases such as:

  • It will be awful
  • I can't possible deal with this
  • It will be a disaster
  • I will look like a fool
  • Everyone will think I am an idiot

Stopping Anticipatory Anxiety

One of the problems with anticipatory anxiety is that when you are replaying the scene in your head, you probably stop at the worst possible moment. You stop right at the disaster you imagine and that becomes the thought you focus on. What would happen if you finish the scene in your head? The ending would probably not be as bad as you imagined at first. Suppose you are giving a speech and you continue to imagine yourself falling while walking up to stage. You stop the scene right there, focusing on your embarrassment. Instead of stopping, imagine standing back up, holding your head high and continuing to walk on the stage to give your speech. Imagine people smiling, clapping and shaking your hand at the end of the speech. End your scenario at a good time, when the speech is over and you feel relief.

It might help to imagine that, even if the speech is a disaster, that you can handle it. Picture yourself when the speech is over, an hour later and the next day. What are you doing? Have you made it through the event? Sometimes, knowing that you can handle the outcome, no matter what it may be, can help alleviate anxiety.

Anytime you feel anticipatory anxiety, think about the last moment in your scenario. Did you end it at the "disaster"? Try to finish the scenario. If it still ends badly, think about how you manage the situation and focus on the belief that you can and will keep going.