Is Self-Care the Solution to Burnout?
Do you ever find yourself in a season of high stress? The kids have sports and after-school programs. You and your spouse have increased work demands. The extended family wants time with you, and friends want to hang out. You are overwhelmed with busyness.
Increased stress levels, when not managed, can lead to burnout.
Burnout happens when you are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted from prolonged stress.
There are three dimensions to burnout: exhaustion, feelings of cynicism, and detachment. We’re all in danger of suffering from burnout if we don’t take steps to manage stress.
A typical response when suffering from burnout is to practice self-care. Self-care is anything you do regularly to maintain physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
But while self-care is essential, is it the solution?
Psychologist Justin D. Henderson, Ph.D., suggests that self-care is not the solution to burnout. “Self-care should certainly be an individual’s priority but not to solely address burnout,” says Henderson.
Self-care is valuable for enhancing mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional health. We should partake in self-care proactively, not solely as a reaction to high stress. Self-care should move us toward our goals. When we utilize self-care to relieve stress, it’s only being used defensively.
Self-care should be more than a solution when stressed out. Practicing self-care regularly helps us build a solid foundation for our life and well-being.
So, if self-care isn’t the solution to burnout, what is?
Here are a few steps you can take to help resolve burnout.
1. Get to the source.
Let’s start with a self-evaluation. What is causing the stress in your life?
These are a few options to begin with:
- Issues at work
- An overloaded schedule
- Caretaking (for a child or someone who’s ill)
- Relationship problems
2. Identify changes you can make immediately.
What can you do now to lighten the load? A small step is still a step in the right direction.
Looking at the examples above, here are some small steps.
- Have a conversation with your employer about your workload or schedule.
- Hold a family meeting to discuss what everyone has going on. Awareness is the first step in reigning in overloaded schedules.
- Ask a loved one or friend to watch your child for a little bit so you can step away.
- Ask yourself if you’ve set and communicated clear expectations.
3. Confide in someone.
Feeling burned out is a significant burden to carry alone. Choose someone you trust and take them out for coffee. Ask them if you can share what’s going on.
4. Set boundaries.
Your time is your most valuable resource. Protect it. Set limits on how much of your time you give away. This means you must say no to some things in your life.
5. Be compassionate with yourself.
Burnout can bring on feelings of failure. Treat yourself the way you would treat a loved one experiencing burnout. Show love, compassion, and support. Allow yourself to feel the emotions that come, but don’t dwell on them. You are capable of choosing a different reaction. And if you don’t feel like you can, see number seven below.
6. Take care of yourself.
This is where self-care does come in. But it needs to be done as a foundation for a healthier you.
7. Talk to a professional.
Sometimes you need to speak to a counselor or a coach to help you work through issues. That’s ok. Get the help you need to restore your hope and health.
We’re all susceptible to burnout because stress is an aspect of daily life. Unfortunately, it’s not going anywhere. But we can take these steps to help us manage it and thrive.
Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World psychiatry: Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 103–111.
Understanding the Stress Response
Self-Care is Not the Solution to Burnout
Why Self-Care Is Not Enough to Beat Burnout
Burnout Recovery: 11 Strategies to Help You Reset
Other blogs by First Things First:
How to Forgive Yourself
Forgiveness is often defined as letting go of feelings of resentment, anger, or bitterness toward someone who has wronged you. Forgiving others can be tough. But we all can forgive. While you may be able to forgive others, how are you at forgiving yourself for mistakes you’ve made or wrongs you’ve committed?
Forgiving yourself requires empathy, compassion, kindness, and understanding. We all make mistakes. However, there is power in acknowledging, learning from, and moving beyond our mistakes.
Why should I forgive myself?
Forgiving yourself is a big deal for your own personal growth. When you forgive yourself, you improve your self-image. Studies have shown that those who practice self-forgiveness experience lower levels of depression and anxiety, too.
Forgiving also impacts your physical health. Research shows that forgiveness can reduce blood pressure and improve heart health.
How do I forgive myself?
Dr. Marilyn Cornish proposed a four-step approach to self-forgiveness, suggesting key actions that can be helpful:
Kendra Cherry, MS, offers further insight on Cornish’s approach to forgiving yourself. Here’s a summary of her work.
Some say you just have to forgive and forget, but Cherry says it’s about more than forgetting the past and moving on. The keys are to accept what happened and show compassion to yourself. It may be the hardest step in self-forgiveness, but acknowledging and accepting what you’ve done is a huge step forward. It’s rarely easy for anyone to look in the mirror and see their own mistakes.
Even after you accept responsibility, you may be overcome with negative feelings like guilt and shame. Believe it or not, it’s normal and healthy to feel guilty when you’ve wronged someone. Cherry says that feeling guilty lets you know you’re a good person who has made a mistake or wronged someone, so it can lead to positive change.
On the other hand, shame makes you feel like your whole self is wrong. Left unchecked, shame and feelings of worthlessness can lead to addiction, depression, or aggression.
Mistakes are just those: mistakes. Remember that your mistakes don’t define you or make you a bad person.
Apologize and Restore Trust
Apologizing and repairing damage is vital to forgiveness. Cherry says this is just as important when you are forgiving yourself. Apologizing shows that you recognize the mistake and feel bad for what you’ve done. Offering an apology to someone you’ve wronged allows you to start rebuilding trust with them. It also enables you to work through the guilt and restore confidence in yourself.
Focus on Renewal
Cherry acknowledges that we all make mistakes and have some regrets, but she notes that it isn’t helpful to focus on those things. In fact, an unhealthy focus can damage your self-esteem and self-worth. Self-forgiveness allows you to move beyond your mistakes and grow.
One of my favorite movie lines is from Batman Begins. Alfred looks at Bruce Wayne and, quoting Bruce’s father, says, “Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
Making mistakes is a normal part of life. We’re all guilty of it, but what matters is that we learn from our mistakes and move forward.
A little side note on self-forgiveness…
Self-forgiveness is important when reflecting on your mistakes and ways you’ve wronged others. However, people who have suffered abuse, trauma, or loss may also feel shame and guilt even though they could not control what happened to them. Hear me say this: You are not responsible for forgiving yourself for what someone else did to you. If you need help, a counselor can help you walk through processing the guilt, shame, and pain you’ve experienced.
Questions Couples Can Ask To Improve Communication – First Things First
Is Conflict in Marriage Inevitable? – First Things First
7 Ways to Increase Trust in Marriage – First Things First
To learn more about self-forgiveness, check out these resources:
What Is Self-Forgiveness and Why Is It Important To Your Mental Health?
Taking the Steps to Forgive Yourself
Sarah J. Peterson, Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Stephanie D. Womack, Joshua N. Hook, Don E. Davis & Brandon J. Griffin (2017) The benefits of self-forgiveness on mental health: Evidence from correlational and experimental research, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12:2, 159-168.
Marillyn A. Cornish, Nathaniel G. Wade (2015) A Therapeutic Model of Self-Forgiveness With Intervention Strategies for Counselors, Journal of Counseling and Development, 93:1, 96-104.
Kyler R. Rasmussen, Madelynn Stackhouse, Susan D. Boon, Karly Comstock & Rachel Ross (2019) Meta-analytic connections between forgiveness and health: the moderating effects of forgiveness-related distinctions, Psychology & Health, 34:5, 515-534.
5 Things To Do When Everything’s Falling Apart
“Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Benjamin Franklin nailed it. But I think he forgot one more inevitability… change.
Change will undoubtedly happen multiple times throughout your life. Some changes are planned, like taking a new job or moving. Some changes are unplanned, like losing a loved one or a job.
When unexpected change hits hard, we often feel like life is falling apart.
The idea of life falling apart in and of itself is very subjective and personal. There’s no standard for what it looks like. I have felt like everything was falling apart several times, whether in my marriage, work, or family dynamics. My experience may not reflect yours, though. Everyone’s experience is unique.
Even though your world falling apart may look different from mine, certain things can help us cope.
Here are five things you can do when everything’s falling apart:
1. Take a break.
Hear me out; I don’t mean give up on your responsibilities and walk away. Just take some time for yourself. Once you identify what makes you feel like everything is falling apart, can you step away to clear your mind? Maybe you’re caring for a sick loved one. Can someone else step in and give you a weekend to rest and refocus? Maybe work is chaotic. Can you take time off? Perhaps your relationship is in distress. Can you spend some time with a friend to decompress and enjoy some activities together?
Sure, you have responsibilities that you can’t give up on, but what would happen if you took a couple of days off to focus on your mental and emotional health?
2. Embrace the present.
Pain from the past or worries about the future often leads us down this path. It’s so easy to be dominated by these two time periods and lose the present. I get it. But you know what? The present is a gift. It’s where life happens. Unfortunately, we can’t change the past and we have no control over the future. However, we can live in this moment.
If you’re seeking help in navigating the chaos, I applaud you. You’re strong enough to make it through whatever you’re facing. In the wise words of Ted Mosby, “Sometimes things fall apart to make way for better things.” (I love that guy!)
3. Connect with others.
There is power in community. It can be tempting to retreat and insulate yourself from others, but you need people. The weight you carry isn’t meant to be carried alone. Maybe you only feel comfortable being completely vulnerable with a small number of friends or family. Connect with those people and ask for help. Help may look like a cup of coffee or a shoulder to cry on. Help may look like wisdom from someone who’s fought the same battle you’re fighting. Either way, you don’t have to walk this road alone.
4. Evaluate what you can control.
When everything is falling apart, the one thing you may desire most is beyond your reach: control. If we’re honest, we probably all want control. When life is spiraling, control is often unattainable. Maybe the lack of control is what led to everything falling apart.
Some things are simply out of your control.
Step back and ask yourself, “What can I control?” The health of others, the people you work for, or your partner’s emotional state are just a few examples of things you can’t control. You can control how you react to people and what you focus on.
5. Practice self-care.
Self-care is a common buzzword. It can be easy to brush it off as something unimportant that you don’t have time for. Sure, self-care is trendy, but that’s because more experts have recognized that paying attention to your needs can improve your well-being.
So take care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Self-care is also subjective, so you have to find what works for you. I run for self-care. It heals me and is a necessity. On the other hand, my wife loves to craft, whether that’s painting, drawing, or creating with her Cricut.
Don’t get discouraged when something doesn’t work. Keep trying until you discover what is beneficial for you.
It’s not easy to get life back on track when it feels like everything’s falling apart. It may seem daunting, but you can do this. You’re strong! The most extraordinary journey begins with a single step.
Other helpful blogs:
What to Do When Everything Feels Hopeless – First Things First
5 Signs You Need Some Alone Time
What to Do When You Feel Compassion Fatigue
How To Stay Grounded When Your Life is Falling Apart
The Only Thing That Matters When Your Life is Falling Apart in 2022
What To Do When it Feels Like Your Life is Falling Apart
5 Ways to Start the New Year Off Right
One more year is almost in the rearview, and the countdown to the new year is on. Can you believe it? If you’re like me, you may already be thinking about new opportunities and goals to help you start the new year right.
If you’re rolling your eyes at the thought of “New Year’s Resolutions,” let me just state the obvious: There’s nothing significant about January 1 when it comes to goals. There is nothing magical about new year’s resolutions. In fact, research has found that only about 45% of people even make resolutions. (And 35% of those who do quit them before the end of January.)
So, are they even worth it? While resolutions may not be the most successful, there is a lot of benefit in setting goals for yourself. Goals can help you become who you want to be, provide stability and drive you. January 1 gives you a good starting point. The calendar flips to another year, and it’s often seen as a fresh start.
But, how do we start the new year off right?
1. Reflect on the previous year.
Healthy things grow. Healthy people are no different, but to grow, we have to see where we are. Start by looking back at the previous year and ask yourself:
What went well last year?
What did I accomplish?
How did my life improve?
What goals did I abandon? Why?
What hurdles did I overcome?
What do I wish I had spent more time doing?
2. Ask yourself, “What do I want to improve upon and why?”
You have the best opportunity to achieve the goals you set for yourself. Be careful not to set your goals based on what another person or our culture says. Your goals are about your health, finances, career, relationships, or whatever you choose. No matter how good a goal is, the success rate is diminished if it’s set for the wrong reasons. Side note: There is no magical number of goals either. Maybe you just need to start with one and focus on it until you achieve it.
3. Set SMART goals.
Ever heard of a SMART goal? SMART is an acronym coined in the Management Review Journal in 1981. It means specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. It’s a business model for setting goals, but it translates well to other types. Here’s a brief explanation of a SMART goal:
- Specific: Your resolution should be absolutely clear. Instead of “I want to get in better shape,” say, “I want to run a 5k in 3 months.”
- Measurable: You need a way to measure your progress. Depending on your goal, you may have to search, but look for a tool to measure your progress. Choose a method that you’ll stick with.
- Achievable: If it’s not attainable, you’ll probably give up too soon. Don’t try to jump too big, too fast. If there’s a big, lofty goal you want to achieve in the future, that’s great. Break it down into smaller goals and take those on. It’s a lot less daunting to say you want to lose 5 pounds in 2 months than to say you want to lose 50 pounds.
- Relevant: Does the goal matter to you? Is this something you want, not anyone else?
- Time-bound: Every goal needs a timeframe. The timeline must be realistic. Set a target achievement date and set benchmarks along the way.
4. Build a support system.
Achieving goals is a lot easier when you surround yourself with people cheering you on. Come alongside friends or family, and all agree to share your goals and support each other. Accountability will push you to keep at it. If you need to, find an online group with similar goals and journey together.
5. Write it down.
This seems simple, but there’s power in writing your goals, perhaps in your planner or on a sticky note in a prominent place. Make sure they are somewhere highly visible so you can read them over and over. And you can check off that goal once you achieve it.
Go ahead and set those goals for the new year. But take the time to make a plan. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
How Failed New Year’s Resolutions Can Affect Marriages – First Things First
Relationship Resolutions – First Things First
How To Avoid Stress This Holiday Season
Holidays are wonderful times of the year, but it’s easy to get caught up in trying to make each one the “best” holiday ever. A lot of holiday stress comes from that expectation. Although we all want to avoid holiday stress, it usually shows up in different ways. It may look like wanting to purchase the perfect gifts, decorating your home immaculately, or preparing the food that everyone loves. Let’s face it, stress happens! But there are some ways you can try to avoid it.
Here are some tips for avoiding stress and bringing “happy” back to the holidays.
Create and utilize healthy boundaries.
Boundaries are limits or rules that we set for ourselves or others, and keeping those can help minimize holiday stress. You don’t have to attend every party you are invited to. Respecting the boundary of your time allows you to decide what activities you want to participate in during the holidays. When you embrace your money boundary, you choose what gifts to purchase and how much to spend. Healthy holiday boundaries can save time and strengthen relationships.
Create a schedule that works for you.
Schedules can often go by the wayside during the holiday season. We become overwhelmed with things to do. When thinking about your holiday calendar, remember to keep your daily routines on it. Making time to exercise, get enough rest, and give yourself time for a break when you need it is essential.
Examine your priorities.
Many people try to do it all for the holidays. However, it’s hard to do it all and keep your wits about you. Take time to examine what matters most to you by asking yourself some questions:
What’s the most essential part of the holiday to me?
What memories do I want to make this year?
What am I unwilling to do?
Once you’re aware of your priorities, you get to choose and adapt. For example, let’s say your focus is spending time with your family. You all have a tradition of going to hear your local symphony orchestra play, but you don’t have to do that because you always have. Maybe this year, your family has a holiday bake-off instead. The main thing is that your family spends time together, not how.
Presence, not perfection.
Media has created so much pressure around the holidays. And sometimes we do it to ourselves.
Perfect tree, perfectly decorated.
Perfect gifts for family and friends.
You have to host the perfect holiday party with the ideal menu.
Do you feel the stress yet?
If your priority is spending time with your family, it’s presence, not perfection, that matters. I’m not saying you shouldn’t put up a tree, host a party or get gifts if you want to. I am saying that prioritizing your family means creating memories and moments by being there. You can choose to slow down and be present in the moment. Don’t miss your moments.
Choose to see the positive.
Your perspective on the holidays can determine how much holiday stress impacts you. You already know that holiday stress will occur, but you get to choose whether you see the holidays as a half-full or half-empty glass. Your perspective allows you to be willing and open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Whether your holidays are a great time with family or you’re glad it’s over because you don’t have to see some of “those people” until next year depends on your perspective.
The holidays can be times of fun, family, food, and sharing life together. They can also be filled with overwhelming expectations. Deciding how you spend your holidays NOW can help you navigate the season with less stress. I hope you’ll be able to look back and feel good about the time with your family – which is what the holidays are really about.
How to Connect at Family Mealtimes
DIY Date Night: Tree Traditions
Can Self-Care Become Selfish?
Personally, I’m all about a good, professional massage. Karen, my massage therapist, magically melts away the stress that makes its home in my muscles. Oh my, your shoulders are angry! Yes, they are, Karen. Yes. They. Are.
Self-care is all the rage. Extra attention to mind, body, and spirit has become a treasured commodity in a stressful, anxious world. But is there a point where self-care becomes just plain selfish? Does visiting Karen for my angry shoulders make me self-centered and egotistical? Or, does self-care go beyond the self?
Consider the clichéd parable of the oxygen mask on an airplane. When the masks drop, put yours on before helping someone else with theirs. (Because, as you know, you can’t help others if you’re passed out in the aisle.)
Self-care works in the same way.
Keep yourself healthy, and you’re more effective at caring for those around you and being an all-around better person.
And the research backs this up. We know that when parents are stressed and anxious, it impacts the parenting relationship and the kids’ mental health.1 Marriages are more prone to communication problems and infidelity when spouses experience mental health issues.2,3 And self-care is shown to prevent these kinds of problems and more.4
But, believe it or not, self-care can become selfish if you’re not careful. I think it’s helpful to distinguish some terms here.
True self-care is anything you do regularly to maintain physical, mental, and emotional well-being.5 And the three big pillars of regular self-care (memorize these!) are sleep, diet, and activity.
The key here is consistency. Eating veggies does a body (and mind) good, but not if it’s only on Tuesday. With this in mind, it’s hard to self-care too much.
But then there is the idea of self-comfort. (Some folks call this self-soothing.)
These are isolated activities we do to de-stress, decompress, and detox from the stress of life.
Crazy week? Relax tonight with a chocolate chip cookie and a good Netflix show.
Is your brain mush from your work project? Walk a couple of laps around the block.
Stress got your shoulder muscles all jammed up? Go visit Karen – she’s great!
Self-comfort isn’t a bad thing, either. Often, it’s just what you need to take the edge off the day.
But… (and there’s always a but, isn’t there?) … self-comfort can become too much of a good thing.
A cookie and Netflix can be great for your well-being… unless it turns into a dozen cookies and 14 hours of binge-watching. An occasional visit to Karen can do wonders for stress. But a massage Every. Single. Day. (as wonderful as it sounds) would have a terrible impact on my family and work responsibilities (not to mention my bank account).
So how do you know when self-comfort is creeping into the realm of selfishness?
Here are some clues:
- You’re using self-comfort to avoid situations rather than temporarily de-stressing from them.
- Self-comfort hinders family or work responsibilities.
- What you do for self-comfort is harmful to yourself or others.
- Self-comfort activities become an addiction.
- Self-comfort is done at the extreme detriment of the three pillars: sleep, diet, or activity.
Inherent in all good things is an element of moderation. So don’t fret about enjoying a bowl of ice cream or buying yourself a new outfit because it’s been that kind of week. That’s not selfish. Simply keep yourself in check so that your self-comfort doesn’t work against your self-care.
One last thing to note: I would add to the three pillars a fourth – a healthy support system. Supportive family and friends are essential to your well-being and help keep you accountable. Plus, there’s nothing like sharing a time of self-comfort with a confidant.
Be sure to take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep. Confide in a friend. Take a regular walk. And if Karen has any openings in her client schedule, pay her a visit. Your angry muscles will thank you for it.
1Burstein, M., Ginsburg, G. S., & Tein, J. Y. (2010). Parental anxiety and child symptomatology: an examination of additive and interactive effects of parent psychopathology. [corrected]. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 38(7), 897–909.
2McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (1997). Personality Trait Structure as a Human Universal. The American Psychologist, 52(5), 509–516.
3Altgelt, E. E., Reyes, M. A., French, J. E., Meltzer, A. L., & McNulty, J. K. (2018). Who is sexually faithful? Own and partner personality traits as predictors of infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35(4), 600–614.
4Ayala, E. E., Winseman, J. S., Johnsen, R. D., & Mason, H. (2018). U.S. medical students who engage in self-care report less stress and higher quality of life. BMC medical education, 18(1), 189.
5Mills, J., Wand, T., & Fraser, J. A. (2018). Exploring the meaning and practice of self-care among palliative care nurses and doctors: a qualitative study. BMC palliative care, 17(1), 63.
8 Ways To Care for Your Spouse’s Mental Health
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5 Benefits of Being Thankful
Have you ever wondered how to make life better? How can you be happier, healthier, or more fulfilled? Having an attitude of gratitude could be one answer. You may have heard this little catchphrase before. It’s possible you just rolled your eyes, too.
But does being thankful work?
What is gratitude anyway?
Gratitude is the state of being thankful. It’s showing appreciation for what you have or receive.
Dr. Robert Emmons, the gratitude guru, takes the definition further. He describes it using two key components:
- Gratitude is “an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits we’ve received.”
- Gratitude is our recognition “that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves.”
So, how can being thankful benefit your life? I’m so glad you asked.
Here are 5 benefits of gratitude:
1. Gratitude can help relieve stress.
We all deal with stress daily. Research has found that being grateful might keep our minds from getting so worked up worrying about things. When you’re in the middle of a stressful situation, refocusing on what you’re grateful for can calm the body and mind. This reduces the symptoms of stress.
When you choose gratitude over negativity, you also feel less emotionally charged. A sense of gratitude allows you to respond rather than react in the moment.
2. Gratitude can make you more positive.
According to psychologist Dr. Catherine Jackson, gratitude causes the brain to increase the production of dopamine and serotonin.
Dopamine is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. It’s associated with pleasure and reward. It contributes to focus, motivation, and happiness.
Serotonin is a chemical that is considered a natural mood stabilizer. It helps reduce depression, regulate anxiety, heal wounds, and maintain bone health.
So, a grateful mind allows you to feel more positive emotions.
3. Gratitude strengthens your relationships.
Relationships, whether romantic, family, or friends, can be full of disappointments. As we grow closer to others, we see their flaws. It can be easy to dwell on these. But an attitude of gratitude allows us to focus more on the good qualities. The more we focus on the good, the more positive attributes we’ll find.
A series of 2012 studies found that gratitude also increases empathy and reduces aggression. Gratitude motivates people to express sensitivity and concern for others. Aggression, however, is just the opposite and is reduced among grateful people.
4. Gratitude can make you healthier.
The more grateful you are, the healthier you feel. Research supports that, too. Those who practice gratitude tend to have better psychological health. Grateful people also involve themselves in healthy activities and are more willing to seek help for health concerns. Additionally, grateful people are more likely to take care of themselves.
5. Gratitude reduces your risk of depression.
Regularly expressing gratitude can lead to fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Being grateful reminds us that not everything is bad. There are positives that we can focus on. Gratitude can make you feel more motivated, which pushes you toward your goals and dreams. A sense of hope helps to protect against depression.
Approaching life with thankfulness can have positive effects across all aspects of life. It’s good for you, and it’s good for your relationships. Choosing to be thankful and expressing gratitude for what you have can be a wonderful thing. And in case you didn’t know, gratitude is contagious. Your attitude of gratitude can create a ripple effect throughout your friends and family.
5 Keys to Being Thankful in Marriage
DOWNLOAD: 30 Days of Gratitude and Love
Why Gratitude Is Good | Greater Good
A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart: Cross-Sectional, Experience Sampling, Longitudinal, and Experimental Evidence – C. Nathan DeWall, Nathaniel M. Lambert, Richard S. Pond, Todd B. Kashdan, Frank D. Fincham, 2012
Examining the Pathways between Gratitude and Self-Rated Physical Health across Adulthood
The impact of gratitude on depression and anxiety: the mediating role of criticizing, attacking, and reassuring the self
What You Need to Know About Anticipatory Anxiety
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 or 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.