Think of the last time you were dreading something. Maybe that exam you barely studied for, that interview for that job you really needed, or finally asking your crush out on a date. Have you ever noticed that the closer you get to the event, the more anxious you become?
There are two different types of anxiety; anticipatory anxiety, and situational anxiety. Understanding the difference with the help of your therapist can have a major impact on your ability to overcome your anxiety.
What is Anticipatory Anxiety?
Anticipatory anxiety is the anxiety that arises when you are anticipating something in the future that is likely to be frightening or triggering. If someone who is afraid of flying is worried about their flight at the end of the month, that’s anticipatory anxiety.
Unlike most animals, Humans have the ability to consider the future, rather than being solely focused on the present moment. This can be incredibly useful because it enables us to plan for the future, for example, storing grain for the winter when nothing will grow, or saving up money for a house deposit.
However, it can easily get us in trouble, especially for those who are predisposed to anxiety. Rather than thinking about the positive things that can happen, many of us focus on the terrible things that might happen.
In a misguided attempt to prepare for the worst, we constantly ruminate about this upcoming event. We think about all of the possible parameters, how we can best prepare, what might go wrong, and what it’s going to be like to finally experience this. All of this is an attempt to reduce their anxiety and to make the event more bearable.
Psychologists Martin Seif and Sally Winston point out that this brand of anxiety is entirely paradoxical. They explain:
“Since attempts to avoid the anxiety make it stronger, [people] feel like they are avoiding in order to reduce anxiety, but the truth is that anticipatory anxiety generates additional anxiety. Anticipatory anxiety is not a true predictor of how much anxiety someone feels in an actual situation”
As it turns out, our attempts to mitigate what seems like an upcoming disaster prove to only make things worse. How does this, then, relate to situational anxiety?
You might have already guessed by the name that situational anxiety is the anxiety we feel in response to a situation. The best way to think about this is to reflect upon a situation in your past that you didn’t predict which caused anxiety. For example, getting into a car accident, getting stuck on a train mid-transit, or being exposed to a natural disaster. In such unexpected situations, we experience the anxiety naturally associated with our routine world being disrupted, and the sudden fear that arises from not knowing what will happen next.
But things get more interesting when we consider that situational anxiety actually occurs in a separate area of the brain from anticipatory anxiety. While they are both forms of anxiety, their nature is different. Anticipatory anxiety is often quick to appear, and slow to disappear. Conversely, we might have a quick rush of situational anxiety upon suspicion that something is wrong, but it can quickly pass once the situation itself passes.
How Understanding Your Anticipatory Anxiety Can Help You
The reality is that nobody can predict what will happen next in their life, and as such we will all face unexpected situations which cause us anxiety. Anticipatory anxiety is, on the other hand, something we often generate ourselves. Out of nowhere, a thought pops up about something terrible that might go wrong in the future. Rather than acknowledging it as a thought and waiting for it to pass, we can instead latch onto it, soon confusing it for reality or a prediction of what is bound to happen.
As the situation draws closer and closer, we become more anxious and as a result, more indecisive. The closer people get to the feared situation, the more they begin to waver on their decision to pursue the activity.
On one hand, the situation can be avoided entirely, which will result in some short term relief from the anxiety. On the other hand, you can follow through with the situation and face the fear.
While avoiding the situation entirely might provide a sense of relief, this is always temporary. In the long run, it can only serve to make the anxiety worse, because the fears have not been confronted and therefore there has been no improvement in your ability to tolerate the anxiety.
It turns out that anticipatory anxiety is actually a really lousy way of coping with situational anxiety. It tells us very little about how events will actually play out in the future. It seldom helps us to deal with difficulties that may arise. And it costs us a huge amount of time and focus which could be better spent on enjoying the present moment.
How to Overcome Anticipatory Anxiety
Working alongside a therapist to monitor, track and move through your anticipatory anxiety is a great way to overcome it. It can sometimes take an outside observer to help you process the anxiety you’re experiencing, because for the individual experiencing it, these fears can seem so real. We can be incredibly good at convincing ourselves that the dreaded outcome we fear will actually take place, and having a therapist fact check it or point out alternatives can be immensely helpful.
And what’s the secret? Make a decision. Even if you choose to avoid it, make sure to actually name that. Be honest with yourself and admit that you are avoiding the thing that makes you anxious. While this can be hard, it goes a long way in helping you to start recognizing all of the ways in which you are avoiding things that make you anxious, and ultimately, how you’re prolonging your suffering.
As Seif and Winston note, “the best way to overcome anticipatory anxiety is to relate to it for what it is: an automatic misleading message that is best allowed and ignored”. The sentiment here is clear; don’t give anticipatory anxiety much thought, and let it come and go as it pleases. Rather than holding on to every thought believing it to be true and accurate, acknowledge it for what it is; just a thought, no more reliable or accurate at predicting the future than a magic eight ball or pair of dice.
Shaun McMahon is a Melbourne based psychotherapist who works with clients struggling with a range of difficulties, including anxiety disorders. He conducts sessions both in person and online, and is currently accepting new clients. If you are interested in overcoming your anxiety, you can arrange a FREE 15 minute consultation by clicking here.
Source: Seif, M. N., Winston, S. (2014) What Every Therapist Needs To Know About Anxiety Disorders: Key Concepts, Insights and Interventions. Routledge: London.