Apr 13

The waiting game: a tribute to anticipatory anxiety

anticipatory anxietyNext week is my 21st birthday. My parents have graciously decided to take me to The Bahamas, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. There’s nothing like relaxing on a tropical island with a fruity drink in hand and a buffet of delicious food nearby. My mouth is literally watering just thinking about it.

But alas, what is my life if not filled with irrational fears and worries? Currently, I am stressing over the flight. I haven’t been on a plane since my panic disorder started last year, so I’m apprehensive. Will I be able to board the plane and make it to The Bahamas unscathed? Or will it be a panic-fueled disaster?

Anticipatory anxiety, the constant discomfort us anxiety sufferers feel between panic attacks, is a curse like no other. It floats around us like an ominous cloud, constantly reminding us that a panic attack could strike at any moment. “Beware of the plane ride,” it whispers in our ears, “You know you can’t escape from the plane right? If you panic, you’re stuck.” For me, the anticipation of new or uncertain events is always the worst part. Those cursed “what if” statements keep popping up in my head, slowly nudging me into a state of frenzy.

The duration and intensity of anticipatory anxiety can vary quite substantially. For a visit to the doctor’s office, I may be anxious for only an hour leading up to it and remain capable of carrying on with my day. For a presentation that has a lot riding on it, I may fret for weeks, lose sleep, and as it gets closer to the presentation time, I may even struggle with everyday tasks like having a conversation.

So how do we beat this anticipatory worry? I’m not completely convinced that we can ever fully get rid of it (everyone worries a little bit), but we can certainly tame it and retain control over our lives. Here are some strategies you might find useful:

  • Mental distractions. When you feel your worries setting in, try to keep your mind occupied. Strike up a conversation with a close friend, do some crossword puzzles, or dive into your work. If you can keep mentally busy, you may be able to postpone the worries. This isn’t a permanent solution, but it can give you some relief. 
  • Physical distractions. Go out and exercise. Go for run, take the dog for a brisk walk, go swimming. Try to exert yourself, as this will keep you mentally occupied as well. It’s a win-win situation, because exercise is good for your overall health.
  • Meditation and relaxation. Relaxation techniques like mindfulness meditation have been scientifically explored as strategies for coping with excessive worrying, and the results have been very positive. Just doing some basic deep breathing exercises can help you stay grounded and deflect those troubling worrisome thoughts.
  • Intellectual attacks. This is the ultimate way to overcome your worries: hit them where they hurt. Use the much more evolutionarily advanced parts of your brain to combat those primitive structures giving you this life of anxiety. So what if you have a panic attack on the plane? You know from a lifetime of anxiety that a panic attack will not kill you, it usually goes away in about 30 minutes or so, and people around you are less aware than you expect. Worries are often irrational and illogical. If you can learn to challenge them with your superior logic, one day they may just go away permanently.

Hopefully you will find some comfort in these coping strategies. I find that distractions work well with the smaller worries, while I reserve the intellectual reasoning and meditation for some of the more lengthy worries. Distraction is a technique that can be applied to almost any form of anxiety, but alas, it never really works in the long run. At some point you need to directly target the underlying problem rather than just avoiding the symptoms.

Do you have other strategies for overcoming anticipatory anxiety? If you do, feel free to leave a comment. Have a great day!


photo by: lrargerich

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