Overcoming Anxiety

Written by Dr. Lee Hildebrand

What Is Anticipatory Anxiety?

Anticipatory anxiety is the habit of looking ahead to try to emotionally anticipate either negative events or the loss of positive things in life that we desire. This tendency to look ahead leads to distress in the mind and the body. This anticipatory anxiety can sometimes feel like waiting for the shoe to drop, for the next difficult thing to happen in our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly increased a sense of anxiety for many of us. People have been fearful to go to the grocery store, to visit relatives, to eat at restaurants, to go to work, and to do many of the things that seemed very ordinary in 2019. Thankfully, we have made progress and vaccinated thousands to pave the way for a possible return to the lives that we once knew. Even in less trying times, Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue in the United States. 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, that is 18.1% of the population, are affected by anxiety every year. Anxiety can be managed, yet only 36.9% of those suffering from anxiety seek out assistance or treatment. Hence, many continue to live year-by-year with patterns of anxiety which produce distress and limit their optimal functioning.

What Contributes to Anticipatory Anxiety?

Anxiety can trigger your fight or flight stress response in the body and release a flood of chemicals and hormones, like adrenaline, into your system. In the short term, this increases your pulse and breathing rate, so your brain can get more oxygen. This can prepare you to respond appropriately to an intense situation. However, the overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system can become frequent and habitual for some who have experienced trauma. In addition, when we experience trauma there can be maladaptive beliefs which accompany our response and contribute to prolonged future anxiety and negative thinking patterns. Even for those without specific trauma, a pattern of wanting to control the future and fearing undesirable results can become habitual.

How Does Anticipatory Anxiety Disrupt Our Lives?

The stress in our bodies related to anxiety can pose problems for sleep, daily functioning, social effectiveness, concentration, and lead to hypertension and other physical conditions. Many of us are aware of a location in our body, like our chest or back, where we experience tightness and tension when experiencing anxiety and stress. Anxiety can also contribute to depression and a sense that things are not going our way. It interferes with what we are doing in the present and distracts us from taking the next right steps to accomplish what needs to be done in the present.

How Can We Live in the Present?

Living in the present is an appropriate and accurate way to live. If you think about time in terms of a doorway with the door shut, the present is standing several steps in front of this closed door. The closed door is the future which is simply unknowable. We often have a sense of the next step that we are taking toward the future in our minds. However, if we are honest, we really have no idea what lies behind that door. The pandemic of 2020 is a prime example of this reality as well as the real estate crash of 2007. This is why the poets and songwriters speak about this dynamic in describing the “eternal moment.” What is meant by this is that we all live continuously in the present. The past is behind us and the future beyond the door is unknowable. We are continuously residing in the present eternal moment within our lives. Accepting this reality and intentionally focusing on staying in the present is a powerful tool in dismantling anticipatory anxiety. The practice of staying in the present helps us to let go of expectations about what we may lose or what we may not gain in the future. It keeps us focused on the most influential moment that we have, the here and now. We can take action steps in the present that have some influence on the future. It makes sense to invest our energy on action steps in the present verses worry about tomorrow. Living in a manner that places our attention on the present moment is a crucial approach to managing anxiety.

What Are Some Practical Tools to Help With Anxiety?

There are many tools to assist us with the battle against anxiety.

  1. Beginning our day with motivational books, podcasts, and videos can assist us in getting into the right frame of mind. These resources can help eliminate outdated and irrational thinking about our life situations to assist with anxiety management. People who believe that their misfortune is “bad luck” or the fault of others, give themselves little recourse to take corrective actions.
  2. Focus on your narrative about situations. Narrative, or what we tell ourselves about situations in life, is important. What happens to us in life is often less harmful than the negative way we think about what happens to us in life.
  3. Find creative positive mental angles about situations and motivation in facing situations, as opposed to being jaded and despairing.
  4. When you are anxious about something take action steps to influence the situation. Simply getting started with the next step can turn down anxiety in many instances. People often tell me that the hardest part of any project is taking the first step and getting started.
  5. Deep breathing and meditation are also important tools that people use to manage anxiety and stay present in the moment. There are many resources online to assist with learning more about this tool.
  6. Practice faith and prayer. Many people find powerful relief in trusting God with the outcomes of their lives.
  7. Professional counseling and psychotherapy can be another valuable tool in assisting us to reduce anxiety, stop negative thinking, experience validation, and take corrective action when facing challenges in our lives. A mental health professional can also assist with making decisions about whether a medication would be appropriate for you when combating extreme forms of anxiety.

In summary, anticipatory anxiety does not have to be part of your daily routine. Practice these steps to assist in managing your anxiety. We all have the potential to experience relative peace in our lives if we are willing to stay in the present and give intentional care to our thinking and attitudes.