Anticipatory Anxiety - We All Have It

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"I've lived through some terrible things in my life,
some of which actually happened"
- Mark Twain

I remember so clearly the first time I read this quote. I was living at home, a few months into the start of actually getting help with my anxiety. I had just started doing yoga. I was soaking up all the mental health information that I could and was specifically drawn to the stories of people who had been through something similar. It was comforting to hear that I wasn't the only one with a mind that ran wild. 

My mom bought me Howie Mandel's book, Here's the Deal: Don't Touch Me. It explores his ongoing struggle with OCD and ADHD and how these mental health issues have shaped his life. So there I was, in my room, reading this book that was quoting some other guy and feeling overwhelmed with relief that someone has finally put into words how my brain worked. My brain was always stuck in the future coming up with worst case scenarios. Basically, Mark and I were kindred spirits. 

Anticipatory Anxiety. It occurs when you're worrying about and living through the stress of a bad situation that isn't actually happening. You're way ahead of yourself and since you're probably not psychic, a lot of the things you end up worrying about never even happen. You put yourself through needless suffering by imagining what might be. On the extreme end of the spectrum, it's living in a state of panic now because you fear some life-altering event in the future like losing your job, getting sick or experiencing the loss of a loved one.

Maybe some of you can relate to that. Many of you probably can't and are thinking it's time to stop reading. Stay with me. I'm willing to bet that anticipatory anxiety affects every single one of you to a certain degree. 

Sunday Night and Monday Morning.

Sunday night is technically still the weekend. We're supposed to actually enjoy it but so often we can't because our brains are running through everything that needs to get done and what's going to happen in the week to come. That right there is anticipatory anxiety. You're experiencing the stress of your work week when in reality, you're at home in a perfectly good place to relax and unwind.

Then all of a sudden, usually way faster than you want it to, Monday morning rolls around. Your alarm goes off. You wake up stressed. Your mind is racing with all the things you have to do and you have this underlying feeling that you simply aren't moving fast enough. It doesn't matter how much time you give yourself to get ready, you feel you need to rush to get at the week, the piled up emails and your list for the day. 

Sounds stressful doesn't it? That's about 12 hours of needless anxiety that we put ourselves through.

The good thing about this unwanted anticipation is that if we're aware of when we're lost in it, we can stop our brain from spiralling out of control with it. Here's a few questions I ask myself when I feel stuck in the future, whether I'm worrying about one of those life-altering events or just the simple everyday stress of what's next in work and life. 

Check in with where you actually are. Feel your feet pressing into the floor, your body sitting or resting on whatever surface you're on. The power of anticipatory anxiety is greater when we don't realize that it's happening. Sometimes the simple act of reminding yourself that you aren't there yet is enough to calm you down.

Check in with what your mind has raced forward to. Is it an event or meeting in the work week ahead that is actually going to happen or is it some conversation in the future that you're predicting is going to happen? If you know how far ahead you've gone and whether the worry is even a possibility, it will be easier to bridge the gap between where you are physically and where you've wandered mentally. 

Check in with who or what you're worrying about. Is it your performance at an important presentation or your bosses reaction to it? Is it something that is within your control or completely outside of it? This helps you determine if your worry is rational - something you actually have power over - or irrational - something you wouldn't be able to control no matter how hard you tried

If you've realized it's a rational worry that has something to do with you the next step is determining if there is an action you can take to stop the spiral of anticipatory anxiety. Would it help you relax if you spent a few minutes practicing that presentation or sending that email? If the answer is yes, then take the time and do that. 

These simple questions tend to help me lessen anxiety and take my power back. They're an opportunity to reflect on what's causing it and then decide what to do next. Maybe you act. Maybe you remind yourself that life is too short to worry about things that you have no control over. Use your tools and these questions to come back to the moment and give yourself the gift of simply being where you are. 

To wrap up here, let's go for the worst case scenario. Let's say the thing you're worrying about actually does end up happing in the future. Ask yourself:

Do you really want to live through it twice?

Once in your mind and then again in your life?

Didn't think so.