Anticipatory Anxiety – What Is It & Why Do We Develop It?
Anticipatory anxiety contrasts to the other form of Anxiety known as ‘real-time anxiety’.
Anticipatory anxiety is the anxious response we experience when we worry about something that ‘might’ happen in the future, whether the future is in the next few minutes or weeks away.
Real-time Anxiety refers to the response that we have when faced with something ‘dangerous’ right now.
In general, real-time anxiety is a hard-wired automatic response the purpose of which is to prepare us to deal with an immediate threat, for example, a tiger about to pounce on us from behind a tree in the jungle. When we experience this automatic reaction our ‘limbic system’ sends adrenaline into our bloodstream to prepare our bodies to either:
- Stand very still and hope the Tiger doesn’t see us – Freeze
- Run Away as fast as possible – Flight
- Fight the tiger as the other two options were not available – Fight
Once the danger is over (assuming we have survived) our blood adrenaline is ‘used-up’ (catalysed) and our blood chemistry returns to normal and the feelings of anxiety dissipate. The important point to note here is that we experience the anxiety reaction in exactly the same way regardless of whether the anxiety is real-time or anticipatory in nature.
When we experience real-time anxiety its generally easy for us to link the ‘feelings’ of anxiety with the event that has just happened, in other words we understand WHY we felt anxious.
However, when we experience anticipatory anxiety its not always clear what it was that led to the anxiety reaction and we will often try to work out what exactly happened ‘around us’ to explain the feelings. People generally fail to realise that in both forms of anxiety, the cognitive processes are very similar:
- Firstly we ‘see’ or ‘perceive’ (imagine) an event (for example a tiger about to pounce or perhaps a business presentation that we have to make next week)
- Next, we think about what this event means for us personally (we will get eaten or perhaps we will make a fool of ourselves)
- If getting eaten by a tiger or making a fool of ourselves has been associated with ‘negative outcomes’ in our minds, then we classify the event as ‘dangerous to us’.
- Once we perceive the event as dangerous our body is prepared for the freeze, flight of fight response that we then experience as anxiety
There are several important points worthy of note within this list of biological steps:
- The Tiger represents a real threat in the present time whereas the business presentation isn’t due to take place for another week yet. However, when we think about the business presentation we are thinking about, and visualising it, right NOW, so in both cases the event is in our minds NOW.
- What the event means to us is the second crucial phase of the process, and in the case above, both the Tiger and the business presentation are attributed with the meaning of ‘dangerous to me’. Whilst its almost certainly the case that most people will interpret the tiger as being dangerous but not everybody who makes a business presentation considers them as anything ‘threatening’ and is therefore unlikely to have any feeling of anxiety about the ‘thought’ of making it ‘next week’.
Anxiety is Not the Problem
Its important to recognise that the anxiety reaction that we have to danger is not only normal but is particularly useful in the pursuit of self-preservation. If we did not have this reaction, we’d soon be in all sorts of trouble!
So anxiety, in itself, is not the problem.
What presents more of a problem is what you ‘interpret’ as ‘dangerous’. If you can change what you determine as being dangerous then you can stop triggering the anxiety reaction.
Managing Anticipatory Anxiety
In our scenario above we considered making a business presentation as being ‘dangerous’ which then triggers the body to experience anxiety.
There are three levels of cognition here:
- Vividly imagining something going wrong in that future presentation (the actual thoughts in the mind which create the Anticipatory Anxiety)
- Business presentations are being ‘classified’ as dangerous as we might make a fool of ourselves and so they must be avoided (a ‘rule for living’)
- If people think I’m a fool they will not like me and I will feel undervalued (core belief – people MUST like me)
As you can see the top level thought is based on the ‘rule for living’ which is itself based on the core belief ‘to feel good people must like me’. If we want to disrupt the ‘cascade’ of thinking and eradicate both the thoughts and rules for living, we HAVE TO deal with the core beliefs that underpin these cognitive processes.
Transform Your Thinking & Overcome Anticipatory Anxiety
If you’re committed to overcoming anticipatory anxiety issues then we highly recommend following either our Advanced Cognitive Behavioural Therapy course with Paul, or the Changing Limiting Beliefs (CLB) Programme with Joan.
Both the CBT course and Changing Limiting Beliefs approach are highly successful & pragmatic psychological training programmes, run over 10 sessions, that will teach you everything you need to know to understand your problem, identify how unhelpful thinking and limiting beliefs might be reinforcing the issue, and then show you how to make any changes to your unhelpful thinking styles or maladaptive safety behaviours that you may have developed as part of your coping strategies.
Our CBT programme is an evidence-based, research supported approach used by mental health practitioners around the World.
FREE Initial Consultations for Anticipatory Anxiety
We offer all prospective clients a FREE initial assessment to chat about your Anxiety problems or your personal development. During this 50 minute consultation we will discuss the various options that are available to you and make a considered recommendation based on your individual personal circumstances.
At TranceForm we believe that therapy & coaching should be a collaboration between therapist and client so it’s very important to be able to meet PRIOR to agreeing any kind of help. Our policy is to help people make a fully balanced & considered decision about undertaking therapy with us, including both the financial and personal implications.
For most mental health issues we recommend following our 10 session Tranceformental CBT Programme (an advanced version of conventional Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) to overcome a wide range of mental health and behavioural problems.
CBT is a proven form of therapy for developing a fundamental level of understanding into the dynamics of your problem, but also for learning new coping skills and strategies for sustainable change over your life.