One of the most common features of anxiety is something called anticipatory anxiety, where anxiety increases just as a result of thinking about what’s on the horizon. One thing we know about this form of advance anxiety is that the reality of the feared event or situation is almost always much less than was feared. Even so, if you are someone who suffers with anticipatory anxiety you may like to try the following exercise. I can’t guarantee it will cure you of the problem but it may make the situation more predictable and therefore more manageable.
The first step in this exercise is to relax your body using your favorite relaxation or meditation exercise. During the exercise you may feel yourself feeling uneasy and your levels of anxiety starting to creep up. This is perfectly normal but you should try to counteract these feelings by returning to a relaxed state before proceeding.
Begin by selecting one of the situations or events that causes you to worry. The first task is for you to imagine that situation without you being in it. You should ‘freeze frame’ the situation as though time has stopped and only you have the ability to make it start again. If it helps, imagine the scene on a movie screen, or on your TV, and let your mind make it as vivid as possible. During this time remember to monitor yourself and to remain relaxed.
Remember that you are not in the situation, you are outside and cannot be affected by the things you see. You are actually in charge of everything. To keep your mind focused, try to describe everything you see, all the while staying relaxed.
Very slowly, add yourself to the situation, but in a way where you can see yourself as easily as you see others. You are the actor/director. Stay focused on your breathing and your relaxation. You can release and press the pause button whenever you wish and you can make things happen in slow motion.
Now let the action start until you reach a point where the anxiety kicks in. Freeze everything, including yourself as an actor, at that point. Look at yourself and make any adjustments to your posture or expression that says ‘anxious’. Think about the parts of your body that you, as actor, are tense and allow yourself as much time as you need to relax and make adjustments.
As the person who is directing you can make any subtle changes you wish to yourself as the actor, but don’t let fantasy take over too much. Think constructively about the little things you’d like to change and encourage yourself to try new strategies out, even though they might feel challenging.
Because you have acted and directed and kept things positive, your experience should be positive. Stay calm and relaxed. As you become less self-conscious about the exercise you will find you are able to expand the scenario to a point where you can predict yourself able to cope successfully with unforeseen circumstances, comments or whatever makes you anxious.
Preparation before a stressful or demanding activity is a well accepted technique in a whole variety of sports or professional activities. The fact that your anxiety might relate to driving a car, or walking into a room, or hosting some event is no different. The use of positive imagery along with personal talk and encouragement is very effective. So, why not give it a try?
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.