My wife and I have been together since high school, and she was just offered a new position at work. Yay!! We’re so excited. But there was only one catch: the offer required that she take and pass a standardized test. Three things trigger her anxiety more than anything else: doctors, spiders, and tests. When any of these three is a possibility, she can’t sleep and loses her appetite. We’ve always known this was an issue for her, but we work through it. One step at a time.
Her anxiety before these events made me curious. Is this normal? Is it a sign of something more? Is she ok? I mean, I get anxious about some things, but not to that extent. So, I did a little digging. In the process, I came across some interesting articles and research regarding something called “anticipatory anxiety.”
What is anticipatory anxiety?
It sounds clinical, but anticipatory anxiety comes from fear or worries about things that could happen — situations, events, or experiences that may lie ahead. It can stem from past experiences, but it doesn’t always. My wife’s anxiety with tests or spiders doesn’t stem from past trauma. The anxiety with doctors? Now that’s a different story.
Some symptoms may include things like hyperventilating, chest pain, difficulty concentrating and feeling apprehensive. It can also show up as sleep issues, loss of appetite, emotional numbness, and trouble managing emotions.
Aren’t we all a little anxious about the future?
Sure! It’s normal for all of us to feel anxious about the future from time to time. Tests, moving, big trips, new jobs, and major medical procedures are just a few examples of things that cause anxiety. It’s not unusual to worry over these things, but there’s a BIG difference between being worried and having anticipatory anxiety.
Let’s take a look at some differences. A 2015 study looked at “phasic fear” (fear that precedes a threat you can predict) and anticipatory anxiety. Phasic fear lasts for a short time. On the other hand, anticipatory anxiety lasts longer and is a reaction to an unpredictable threat. Each fear activates different parts of the brain. The researchers found that we all experience different levels of anticipatory anxiety. BUT if a person suffers from an anxiety disorder, anticipatory anxiety can go well beyond what most people experience. Anticipatory anxiety can be life-limiting for those who suffer from panic disorder, PTSD, or a phobia.
An American Psychological Association survey in March 2021 found that 50% of participants reported anxiety in the current reentry phase of the pandemic. We’re probably all a little anxious right now as the world reopens and kids return to school (in some areas of the country for the first time since March 2020). We might even worry about a COVID recurrence or future pandemics.
So, how do we cope with anticipatory anxiety?
Anticipatory anxiety can put stress on personal relationships because you’re distracted by what-ifs. It can be life-limiting as you try to avoid things you’re afraid of. But you can cope with anticipatory anxiety and work to overcome it.
We can also help others cope by paying attention to their actions and emotions. Maybe you have a loved one with anticipatory anxiety. If so, you can encourage them to use the coping mechanisms listed below. A strong support system that offers love, grace, and encouragement can make a world of difference.
Here are some methods to help you cope:
Practicing a relaxation response: Deep breathing, guided imagery, or meditation are a few examples. Find something that calms you.
Self-talk: Talk to yourself like you would talk to a friend who’s having a similar experience. Self-compassion can make you more mindful. It can also motivate you to recognize and face your fears.
Healthy distractions: Take a walk, listen to music, engage in your favorite hobby, or exercise.
Challenge your anxious thoughts: Ask yourself if you’re being realistic. If you aren’t, challenge those thoughts with realistic ones.
Take action: Sometimes, the best solution is to confront whatever makes you anxious. This may mean taking small steps toward conquering your fears. You don’t have to tackle it all at once.
So, my wife faced her test anxiety. She studied diligently. The kids and I cheered her on and offered words of support and encouragement. We created an environment at home to lessen her anxiety as the time to take her test got closer. And she passed her test. With that, the fear is gone… until the next test. But, when it comes to spiders, we’ve got a long road ahead. [Read How To Help Your Spouse Deal With Anxiety]
Overcoming anticipatory anxiety takes work. But, reining in your fears will be helpful for you and your family. If you think your anticipatory anxiety could be a sign of something more, consult with a therapist or counselor for guidance.