What is Anticipatory Anxiety?

Insufficient Sleep May Make Anticipatory Anxiety Worse

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If you have anticipatory anxiety, you are fearful for an extended period of time about an imagined future situation you perceive as an unpredictable threat.

This mental health condition is usually not seen as a specific disorder, but rather a symptom of certain anxiety-related disorders, including panic disorder, generalized anxiety, and social phobia.

Your anxious feelings can reach a peak in the hours before a scheduled event or last for months prior to a situation that may or may not ever happen.

 

Symptoms of Anticipatory Anxiety

If you know that you will soon need to face the object of your fear, you might develop physical and emotional symptoms, such as:

Anticipatory anxiety can be extremely life-limiting as you search for ways to avoid the experiences. It can put stress on your personal relationships because you're distracted and appear self-absorbed. You may also find it compromises your ability to function competently at work if you are consistently distracted. 

Getting Enough Sleep Can Help

Getting a sufficient amount of sleep may help ameliorate anticipatory anxiety, but not getting enough could exacerbate the situation, according to UC Berkley neuroscientists. This is because a lack of sleep fires up the regions of your brain, the amygdala and the insular cortex, associated with processing emotions.

This is a vicious cycle because people who suffer from anxiety can have trouble sleeping and then the sleep deprivation makes them more anxious.

Phasic Fear vs. Anticipatory Anxiety

Phasic fear lasts for a short time and is a reaction to a predictable threat. Anticipatory anxiety, in contrast, lasts a longer time and is a reaction to an unpredictable threat.

In a recent study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, neuroscientists using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning technology discovered these two types of fear are not the same because they activate different parts of the brain.

Anticipatory Anxiety and Flying

When you have flight anxiety, you are perceiving the present and experiencing fear in real time. You are sitting in a seat on a real plane and worrying about the takeoff or you might feel anxious if you hear a strange noise in flight.

In contrast, if you have anticipatory anxiety about flying, you are afraid of an imaginary plane and what might happen if you get on the plane. You are at home, imagining one or a variety of imaginary in-flight disasters.

To beat anticipatory anxiety for your next flight try the following:

  • Accept that you thought the flight was safe enough to make the reservation and tell yourself to stop thinking about it.
  • Accept the reality that your chance of getting on a flight headed for disaster is far less than one percent, and even knowing that you're just gonna do it anyway.
  • Reframing your situation. For example, if it's the fear of turbulence that keeps you up at night, remind yourself that the best place for you to be in turbulence is in your seat with your seatbelt on.

Sources:

Anxiety UK: Anticipatory Anxiety

Bunn, Tom. Psychology Today: Anticipatory Anxiety and Reframing (2014)

Munsteerkotter, et al. Depression and Anxiety: Spider or No Spider? Neural Correlates of Sustained and Phasic Fear in Spider Phobia (2015)

Anwar, Yasmin. UC Berkeley: Tired and Edgy? Sleep Deprivation Boosts Anticipatory Anxiety (2013)

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