The Anticipation is Killing Me: Coping with Anticipatory Anxiety

by Beth Granet, PsyD

Over the last few months amidst a pandemic, social unrest, political discord, and what has felt like general chaos, we have all had more frequent moments of worry and tension. When we are unsure whether something will happen, we are left with all questions and very few concrete answers. When will I ever return to my office? Will my child’s school reopen? How will I afford my rent or mortgage this month? What will our household schedules look like? Will we be able to celebrate important holidays with family this year? How will I continue to manage working from home and helping my kids with virtual learning?

Our general anxiety about whether future events will happen, and how they might look if they do, is referred to as “anticipatory anxiety.” Literally, the stress, fear, and worry associated with thinking about and waiting for scenarios that are unknown and unpredictable. Feeling scared or irritable towards future events can be a very normal experience. Getting anxious or unsettled before moving, an important test, or a major trip are all appropriate examples of anticipatory anxiety. However, with the added stressors of a pandemic, grieving the loss of events, not seeing loved ones, and observing social injustices, many of us are feeling the weight of our anticipation more intensely than usual. If you find yourself consumed by worrisome thoughts for lengthier periods of time, this could be an indication that your anxiety levels are becoming problematic. Additionally, if you are focusing on whether you might feel stressed when or if a certain situation occurs (essentially getting worried about future worrying), that also may mean that your anxiety is becoming detrimental.

So, how will you know when you or your kids are experiencing anticipatory anxiety? Here are some telltale signs of what this phenomenon might look like as we attempt to function in our world today:

  1. Magnifying fear in an unrealistic way and picturing it as much worse than it likely is/will be. This can also manifest as setting up pessimistic expectations in general.
  2. Obsessing over our worries and circling through the same thoughts over and over.
  3. Reacting to every new detail or piece of information as opposed to looking at the bigger picture or purpose.
  4. This can be avoiding our worries, responsibilities, or even avoiding things that we know may actually help and comfort us. For example, avoiding exercise, regular sleep, or even confronting our fears with logical and realistic thoughts instead.
  5. Having extreme difficulty making decisions and feeling fearful, guilty, or sad as a result.

It is important to be mindful that these responses can be seen in both adults and children. Although we are all struggling to maintain a sense of routine and normalcy while feeling unsettled and uncertain, we should pay extra attention to the responses and expectations we may observe from our kids. Here are general considerations when thinking about stressors your children may be experiencing:

  • Kids are not always able to eloquently verbalize their thoughts. They might be feeling more anxious in general, which can look like difficulty listening to directions, following through with responsibilities, or treating others with the respect they usually do.
  • Children could be worried about people around them getting sick or leaving them, whether that means entering a hospital for care, or even passing away.
  • School fears may also be especially heightened. Kids could be stressed about having to obey strict and rigid rules in their school environment such as maintaining social distancing, wearing a mask for many hours, and not engaging with their peers in the same way they are accustomed to.
  • Learning expectations are also higher than ever as children need to manage mastering the skills required to plan, pay attention, and organize themselves during academic lessons all while also feeling generally lonely, fearful, or overwhelmed. Teachers also may be restricted in their ability to provide the comfort and reassurance kids need.
  • There are frequent looming threats that any day, children may have to stop attending school, cancel sports or other extracurricular activities, or even go into full quarantine again.

Of course, like adults, all children are different and can demonstrate a variety of reactions to uncertainty and anxiety. It can be easy to slip into feeling helpless or defeated when we do not know what is coming next. But, having and remembering the above information can provide us all with a sense of power and control as well as empathy and understanding for each other during all of the unexpected. The better you can identify and acknowledge the signs and special considerations of anticipatory anxiety, the better prepared you will be to tackle it! Aside from honoring you or your child’s anxiety, there are a few other basic tactics you can try:

  • Remind yourself (and your loved ones) that your productivity is not the same as your self-worth or ability. Try to dispel your usual conception of what being productive should look like in a normal world and make concessions for how this will shift when working under virtual and at-home platforms. Treat and talk to yourself like you would a good friend.
  • Utilize relaxation techniques that have typically worked for you in the past. For example, deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or general mindfulness practices. For specific suggestions on how to implement these things, talk to your therapist.
  • Manage your sleep and general schedule. Practice good sleep hygiene and stick to a routine as much as you are able but be willing to be flexible as plans change. Make contingency plans when you can, and practice acceptance when you cannot.
  • Accumulate as many positive experiences as possible, no matter how big or small. Create plans that you can look forward to that are unlikely to change. For example, going on a walk, making your favorite meal, changing your environment when possible, or spending time with your partner outside of your children.
  • If needed, purposely picture the worst-case scenario and remind yourself that you are equipped to handle it! Once you have embraced that fact, try and focus on what would be the positives in a possible outcome, even if it is not the outcome you are hoping for. Focus on what you can positively expect instead of what you are dreading.

Even if you have your plans and routine in place now, remember that things can always change on us. But, by recognizing our anxiety, taking extra care of ourselves and loved ones, and leaning heavily on our self-care and support systems, we can conquer uncertainty with confidence and poise. Always remember that the energy we spend protecting our physical health should also be invested in our mental and emotional wellbeing as well.