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The role of anticipatory anxiety

As you learn to disarm anxiety, knowing its patterns is one of your best strategies.

One part of the pattern of suffering that anxious people experience is anticipatory anxiety, which is the feeling of dread about an upcoming thought, feeling, sensation, or situation that might bring about the feared situation.

Individuals with anxiety disorders typically have difficulty staying with the feeling long enough to recognize that it’s a feeling, not a fact or prediction. As I’ve discussed, the nature of your anxiety disorder is that your mind is experiencing your thoughts, feelings, memories, or sensations as unwanted and dangerous and is getting you away from them as soon as possible.

Whether or not you have a formal self-monitoring practice, identifying and labeling dread when its happening is a powerful step because it is the opposite of avoidance. Here’s a suggestion of what to say to yourself:

“What I’m experiencing right now is anticipatory anxiety. My dread is a feeling, not a fact or prediction. It’s an indication that I feel uncertain. The feeling of uncertainty does not mean something bad is about to happen. In fact, uncertain might indicate that something good is about to happen! This is just a feeling. I can allow dread to be present while I do what I want to do right now.”

If you’re wondering if some of this self-talk is reassurance, it is true that it might feel reassuring to think like this. We’ll talk more about this in another post, but for now, reassurance compulsions, like other neutralizers, are marked by your intent rather than the content of what you’re saying. So, if you use this type of self-talk repetitively to make your anxiety go down, you are using a self-assurance compulsion that is going to keep your anxiety going over time. If on the other hand, you use this type of self-talk to observe the process in your mind, remind yourself of the pattern, and redirect your attention so that you can refocus on what you care about, then you’re on your way to relating to your anxiety more effectively. In this case, the incidental experience of dread was an opportunity to catch the pattern in action and show yourself that you don’t have to play by anxiety’s rules.

After I explain what dread is and tell them to identify and label it, most of my clients say, “Ok. And, then what? How do I make it go away?”

My answer is, “Label it and then do nothing. You can’t make it go away.”

Anxiety treatment is just the worst, don’t you think!?!

Doing nothing to resist it or make it go away is powerful and intentional stance. Just like other parts of the anxious pattern, every time you label and actively accept what you’re experiencing, your mind is less likely to associate that experience as something to fear. The anticipatory anxiety may not dissipate in this moment, but you’re setting yourself up for success in future moments.