how to reduce anticipatory anxiety

How to Reduce Anticipatory Anxiety

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By Shannon Haragan, LPC

By now, you’ve probably heard that people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. Or, as Jerry Seinfeld puts it, “If you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.” One of the reasons for this irony is the unknown versus the known: Generally speaking, we don’t know when we’re going to die, but we do know when we’ll be expected to stand up and give a speech in front of an audience. This leaves plenty of room for our minds and nervous systems to play all kinds of tricks on us.

Truth is, life offers many occasions that fire up our nervous systems and fight-or-flight responses. The anticipation of a these events often generates symptoms such as an increased heart rate, shallow breathing, nausea, as well as negative thoughts (the dreaded “what ifs?”), and uncomfortable levels of fear. Your kiddos may have experienced some of this recently as they prepared for their first day at school. Or you may have experienced it on a first date, a job interview, or even before going to the dentist. Though a little bit of anxiety can help motivate you and give you focus, sometimes that little bit can become super-sized. The good news is there are ways to help reduce the symptoms of anticipatory anxiety. Here are a few things to try:

1) Breathe! The psychiatrist and founder of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls, said, “Fear is excitement without the breath.” Anxiety and excitement are similar in how we physically experience them. If we’re able to concentrate on slowing down and deepening our breath, not only will it soothe our nerves, slow down our heart rates and loosen tension locked in our muscles, but it can also help to transform the anxiety into a greater sense of excitement.

2) Imagine a successful outcome. Our brains are built for protection, so when our nervous systems are aroused, it makes sense that our brains naturally scan for the worst-case scenario, in order to be fully prepared. But the more we focus on the “what ifs” and potential disasters, the more likely those things are to happen. Additionally, those thoughts will generate and perpetuate negative feelings, such as nervousness and feelings of insecurity. What is the “good” that this event can lead to? If your mental patterns are generally rooted in the negative, become aware of them, and instead, direct your thoughts toward success.

3) Do your research! Anticipatory anxiety often occurs as a result of a lack of preparation. Needing to prepare for an event seems more obvious if it’s for a job interview or a test at school, but what about going to a kickboxing class for the first time or having to make a super quick flight connection in an unknown airport? Thankfully, most of us have access to information easily and instantaneously these days. Google, Bing or Quora away, and then do it some more! Search for videos of kickboxing movements, airport maps, or whatever information will equip you enough to feel a little more prepared. This turns the unknown into a-little-more-known, which can result in a decrease of anxiety and increase in feelings of confidence.

4) Plan to do something fun after the event. There’s no need to be extravagant here, but what is something you can genuinely look forward to? Drinks with a friend? Getting a massage? Taking your kids out for ice cream after the recital? Whatever makes you happy, write it in your calendar and plan for it after the big event. Being able to look forward to something helps further dilute those feelings of nervousness and motivate you forward.

Anticipatory anxiety can be uncomfortable, but if you’re willing to give it some time and attention, you may find the anxiety decreasing enough to allow for a more positive experience overall. If you would like guidance from a counselor to reduce your anxiety, you can make a counseling appointment and we can show you evidence based techniques and skills to overcome your difficulties. If you would like an overview of the process prior to making your decision, we have a page dedicated to anxiety counseling. Additionally, you can read Tips for Managing Election Anxiety and The Simplest Way to Overcome Anxiety and Depression.