“Somehow the anticipation of pain can be even more troubling, more a misery than the pain itself. ”
Joanne Harris

“Expectation is the mother of all frustration.”
Antonio Banderas

“Anticipation is making me late, it’s keeping me waiting.”
Carly Simon

Anticipatory anxiety is the fear and dread you experience before the event. It’s what’s at play when you spend weeks dreading the results of medical appointment, yet the news is mild and manageable. Or when you struggle with the decision to accept or decline attending a friend’s birthday, but eventually give in and go, and have a great time! “Why did I do that to myself?” you wonder. Most people experience anticipatory anxiety, every now and then. This experience is the body’s normal response to perceived future threats. In the days and hours leading up to an important event you may be a bundle of nerves, which is the fight-flight-freeze system in action. It is anticipating the need to protect the body from threat or danger. Although this system is critical to our survival when there is actual threat or danger, it’s a big problem when there isn’t.

Common areas of anticipatory anxiety include:

  • Applying for a new job
  • Athletic, musical or other performances
  • Going on a date or to a party
  • Joining a club, team or sport
  • Starting a job
  • Preparing for an interview
  • Going on vacation
  • Tests, projects and oral reports

In addition to specific events or situations, if you have panic disorder, anticipatory anxiety is a contributing factor to ongoing panic attacks. Panic attacks result from misinterpreting bodily sensations associated with the “fight-flight-freeze” response, as being dangerous. For example, you may believe that an increase in your heart rate means you are having a heart attack. As a result, you’re always anxiously anticipating the worst outcome, staying on the “lookout”, and constantly scanning your body for sensations that might signal another attack.

Learning to recognize and address anticipatory anxiety is important. Most of the examples we’ve mentioned occur throughout life, as do normal fluctuations in bodily sensations, like panic. The following is a list of strategies that can help:

  • When possible, ask family and friends to give you a reasonable amount of warning about upcoming events. Receiving too much notice can contribute to extra time to focus on your fears resulting in your being a quivering mess once the event finally arrives. However, ensure people don’t spring the news on you an hour before go time.
  • Focus on the positive and fun aspects of the pending event. Recognize that worry can lead you only to focus on the scary aspects, but remind yourself of the positive aspects as well. Strike a balance!
  • Remind yourself that the physical sensations you feel when anxious are harmless. The sensations are the body’s protective mechanism to manage danger; however, the system has experienced a false alarm, as there is no danger.
  • Go to your personalized My Anxiety Plan (MAP) and use tools such as Learning to Relax, Balanced Thinking, Tolerating Uncertainty, Panic Exposures, and others.
  • For ongoing situations that continue to generate anticipatory anxiety such as tests, clubs, or social events, consider using the strategies outlined in the Facing My Fears worksheet.