Ever felt so worried you couldn’t fall asleep the night before a meeting with your boss? Maybe your palms sweat whenever you think about having the where-do-you-see-this-going talk with your partner.
No one knows what the future holds, and wondering how work or relationship situations will turn out is pretty normal. Or, maybe you’re more concerned about less ordinary events, including natural disasters, losing loved ones, or global pandemics.
Anticipatory anxiety describes fear and worry around bad things that could happen. It can happen in a lot of different contexts, but it commonly focuses on things you can’t predict or control.
Again, these worries are normal, but they can become signs of anticipatory anxiety if they start to impact your day-to-day life.
Anticipatory anxiety can range from a passing nervousness to a debilitating sense of dread.
You might notice:
- difficulty concentrating
- trouble managing emotions and mood
- emotional numbness
- loss of interest in your usual hobbies
- jumpiness or restlessness
- muscle tension and pain
- nausea and appetite loss
- sleep problems
With anticipatory anxiety, you might spend a lot of time imagining worst-case scenarios. Over-focusing on these unwanted outcomes can also increase your frustration and hopelessness.
Say your partner seems a little preoccupied lately. When you mention it, they say nothing’s wrong. You don’t believe them and start to worry they want to break up, and you can’t stop imagining the breakup conversation you believe is forthcoming. Thinking about losing your partner makes you feel sick, and you have trouble eating and sleeping normally.
Anticipatory anxiety isn’t a mental health diagnosis on its own, but it can appear as a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder.
Other conditions can also involve a fear of future events that may not necessarily happen.
If you have social anxiety, you might worry about saying something embarrassing or taking a serious social misstep that costs you friends or your job.
Worrying about future criticism from others can make it difficult to share ideas or speak your mind on any topic.
A specific phobia can involve extreme fear of everyday objects or experiences — clocks, spiders, heights, or taking a bus. People with phobias often have a lot of anticipatory anxiety around coming into contact with what they’re afraid of.
Say you have a phobia of dogs. Dogs are pretty common, so you know you’ll probably encounter one sometime, but you don’t know when or where. As a result, you might spend a lot of time worrying about the possibility of that encounter. This anxiety can keep you from going places you might see dogs, which can limit your ability to spend time outside or with friends who have dogs.
Anticipatory anxiety related to phobias can become so severe you eventually avoid venturing out at all, which can strain your relationships with friends and loved ones.
Anticipatory anxiety is a common symptom of panic disorder.
Panic attacks involve a lot of uncomfortable sensations, including chest pain, difficulty breathing, and feelings of extreme terror. If you’ve had one panic attack, it’s very normal to worry about having another one, especially if you have no idea what triggered it.
Anxiety about having more panic attacks can become overwhelming. Worries over losing control in front of other people can lead you to avoid public places. Fears of having a panic attack while behind the wheel might prevent you from driving, which could affect your ability to get around.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Many people who’ve experienced trauma live in fear of that trauma happening again. PTSD-related anticipatory anxiety can occur as a symptom of any traumatic experience — a car crash, a mugging, or witnessing a loved one’s death.
Triggers related to the trauma could heighten your feelings of anticipatory anxiety. If the event is never far from your mind, you might spend so much time remembering what happened and worrying about it happening again that you struggle to think about anything else.
Anticipatory anxiety can cause plenty of distress and keep you stuck in looping anxious thoughts.
These coping tips can help you take action to break this cycle.
Take care of physical needs
The mind-body connection is very real, and your physical wellness can have an impact on emotional wellness. Things like sleep, nutrition, and exercise can play an important part in the management of anxiety symptoms, including anticipatory anxiety.
If your symptoms include a nervous stomach, you might find it hard to eat regularly, but skipping meals can make you feel even worse.
In a particularly unpleasant catch-22, anxiety makes it difficult to get restful sleep, but sleep deprivation
Check your self-talk
The way you talk to yourself about anxiety matters.
It’s natural to worry about bad things happening. When these worries start to take over, remind yourself (kindly) that spending too much time thinking about negative things can prevent you from enjoying the good things in life.
When you start to worry about something, ask yourself, “Is this a realistic possibility?” If your (honest) answer is no, try to redirect your energy toward the present moment instead.
If the answer is yes, it’s perfectly OK to make a plan to cope, whether that involves taking time off work or restocking your emergency supplies. Then, try to set your thoughts aside: You’ve done all you can for now.
If you tend to criticize yourself for your fears and anxious thoughts, think about what you might say to a friend who shared similar thoughts. You’d probably offer positive support, not negative judgment, right? Practice that same compassion with yourself.
Talk about it
It’s not always easy to talk about what you’re afraid of, but sometimes voicing those fears can help them feel less frightening.
Remember the previous example of worrying about a breakup? Telling your partner about your fears might feel more terrifying than the thought of the breakup.
Take a closer look at the situation. Is your relationship mostly going well? Do you have any reason to believe they want to break up? Could something else entirely be distracting them? You won’t know for sure unless you start a conversation.
Letting loved ones know about your anxiety can also help, especially if you feel isolated by your symptoms. Friends and family can offer support by listening and providing positive distractions, like taking a walk or cooking a meal together.
Grounding exercises can help interrupt distressing or anxious thoughts and reconnect to the present.
Some of them involve physical items, like snapping a rubber band against your wrist, holding ice, or stroking a soothing grounding object. Many grounding techniques happen in your own thoughts, so you can practice them anywhere, at any time.
If your own coping strategies aren’t providing much relief, it’s worth exploring professional help. Anxiety is pretty common, and most people need a bit of extra support to live comfortably with it.
Here’s a look at the main options.
Therapy is usually the best way to explore issues involving anxiety. A therapist can help you examine sources of stress in your life and begin working to address possible causes of anticipatory anxiety.
Therapists can also help you identify harmful or less effective coping methods, like avoiding the source of your fear or numbing with alcohol, and offer guidance on more helpful strategies.
Since anticipatory anxiety can happen with different mental health concerns, your therapist might recommend a specific type of therapy depending on what you’re dealing with:
- Many therapists recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or mindfulness-based CBT for anxiety.
- Exposure therapy can be particularly helpful for specific phobias, but it’s also often recommended for other types of anxiety and PTSD.
- Along with talk therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) helps many people see improvement of PTSD symptoms.
Medication won’t cure anxiety, but it can help improve symptoms, including anticipatory anxiety, especially when combined with therapy.
Your healthcare provider may recommend medication if your symptoms:
- make it difficult to go about your daily life
- prevent you from making progress in therapy
- cause serious distress
- affect your physical health
Anxiety medications include both long- and short-term options, so you don’t necessarily have to take them forever. The decision to take medication is personal, so you shouldn’t feel pressured to either try or avoid it.
Here are some potential medications that can help:
- Beta-blockers can work well as an occasional treatment for stress. You might consider these if your anxiety is usually manageable but sometimes feels out of control.
- Benzodiazepines are sedatives that can promote relaxation and calm. They can be addictive, so they’re only recommended for short-term use. You might use them to help manage serious anxiety symptoms as you begin therapy, for example.
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and other antidepressants can provide relief over longer periods of time.
Anxiety has an important purpose: It helps you prepare for possible danger.
The future holds only surprises, so it’s normal to spend some time wondering what lies ahead. This can actually help you — it’s never a bad idea to prepare for a range of possibilities.
However, when anticipatory anxiety becomes so severe it prevents you from enjoying the present, it may be time to seek professional support.
In short, if your quality of life is affected, talking to a therapist can help.
Not sure where to start? Our guide to affordable therapy can help.
Uncertainty can be frightening, especially when you want to protect yourself from harm. It’s not possible to predict the future, so it’s important to find ways to cope with the unknown so these worries don’t cause problems in your life.
A compassionate therapist can help you address overwhelming fears of uncertainty and get more comfortable with the unknown.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.