As someone who has dealt with anxiety for the better part of two decades, I’m very familiar with the toll it can take on you. For me, in particular, it tends to intensify leading up to big events or unfamiliar situations, which I recently learned is referred to as anticipatory anxiety (which can be treated). “Picture the emotion you feel right before jumping off a huge cliff — that’s anticipatory anxiety,” explains Dr. Katie Fracalanza, a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor at Stanford University. It can show up before any kind of difficult, scary, or new situation such as weddings, funerals, dates, social gatherings, public speaking engagements, or job interviews.
Signs that you’re experiencing anticipatory anxiety include ruminating about an event and imagining the worst-case scenario, says neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart. The racing thoughts, Dr. Fracalanza adds, can also be accompanied by physical symptoms including sweating, shaking, nausea, dry mouth, and a pounding heart.
So what exactly causes anticipatory anxiety? Dr. Swart explains, “it is actually your brain preparing you mentally and emotionally for the event because you are aware that it could be challenging in some way.” In other words, if your brain believes something terrible could happen (i.e. you mess up during a presentation), it labels the situation or event as a “threat,” Dr. Fracalanza adds. Here’s the kicker, though: The anticipation of an event is usually much worse than the event itself, Dr. Swart says.
While feeling jitters and butterflies before a big event is normal, anticipatory anxiety can become problematic if it is all-consuming or prevents you from doing the things you want to do. Below, experts explain when anticipatory anxiety becomes unhealthy and four tips for managing it.
Healthy vs. Problematic Anticipatory Anxiety
“All humans are anxious about some things, and it’s natural to feel that fight-or-flight response before doing something challenging,” Dr. Fracalanza says. However, Dr. Swart notes it becomes problematic when you're spending more time worrying about an event than the actual duration of the event. “Then it is tipping the balance from mental preparation to unnecessary emotional draining,” Dr. Swart says. “Both practical and mental [preparation] is fine, but if the anxiety is causing insomnia, low mood or irritability, then it is affecting the ability to live mindfully.”
Dr. Fracalanza adds that anticipatory anxiety can also cause problems if you’re interpreting it in a catastrophic way (e.g., “I’m going crazy!” or “I shouldn’t be feeling this!”) or if it leads to avoiding important events or activities, which can affect your quality of life. “Even though avoiding the scary situation makes you feel better in the short-term, in the long-term, it usually makes your life smaller and less fulfilling,” she says. “Acting on anticipatory anxiety by avoiding can really rob people of opportunities to connect with others and thrive in their careers.”
Essentially, Dr. Fracalanza sums up, “what makes anticipatory anxiety helpful versus unhelpful is how you relate to it.”
How To Manage Anticipatory Anxiety
Don’t Try To Fight It
When you’re experiencing anticipatory anxiety, the first thing Dr. Fracalanza recommends doing is accepting the physical sensations that come up rather than resisting them. “Letting it be there is going to keep you from making things worse,” she says. “See if you can relax your stomach muscles, let your shoulders drop down from your ears, and put your palms face up. These are all ways to act ‘willing’ and open to experiences that are already there.”
Cope Ahead Of Time
Since the worst-case scenario coming true drives anticipatory anxiety, one way to help combat it is to plan what you would do if things go wrong. This may seem counterintuitive, but Dr. Fracalanza says having a few ideas in mine for how you’d manage a difficult moment can help ease anxiety. For instance, if you’re afraid you might mess up an answer during a job interview, your plan may be to take deep breaths before answering or applying to other jobs if the interview doesn’t go well, which, at the end of the day, isn’t so bad.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up
If anticipatory anxiety is something you experience regularly, it can be easy to get caught in a cycle of getting angry at yourself for feeling anxious before an important event. “Being mean to yourself when you’re already feeling bad is unhelpful and unfair to you,” Dr. Fracalanza says. Instead, she recommends changing your internal dialogue to one that is more encouraging and understanding. “See if you can speak to yourself like you would talk to a dear friend. For example, ‘it’s okay to feel scared,’ ‘whatever you’re feeling will pass,’ or ‘you’re going to get through this.’”
Take The Leap
The last and probably most powerful way to deal with anticipatory anxiety is by challenging yourself to do the thing that scares you. “When you practice doing things you’re afraid of, even though you have anticipatory anxiety, you learn how strong and capable you truly are,” Dr. Fracalanza says. And, she adds, the more you practice doing the things you want and not what anticipatory anxiety wants you to do (aka avoid the situation), the less you’ll experience those jitters over time.