How to Cope with Anticipatory Anxiety and Recognize Symptoms

Medically Reviewed By Kendra Kubala, PsyD
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Anticipatory anxiety refers to an anxious feeling some people get when they think about a future situation or event. It causes you to worry about what might happen. These worries often include concern about the worst case scenario. Examples of when you might experience anticipatory anxiety include starting a new job, meeting a new person, or being away from a loved one. It is usually a symptom of another condition, such as a phobia or separation anxiety.

The worry you experience can occur immediately before the event, or it can last for months in the lead-up to the stressful occasion. Anticipatory anxiety can also be ongoing if you are anxious about a recurring situation.

Read on to find out more about anticipatory anxiety. This guide includes information about coping with anticipatory anxiety, as well as symptoms and causes.

Quick Facts About Anticipatory Anxiety

  • Anticipatory anxiety occurs when thinking about a new or recurring future experience.
  • It is typically a symptom of an anxiety disorder.
  • Examples of related conditions include phobias, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Anxiety can last for months during the time leading up to the event.

What are the symptoms of anticipatory anxiety?

A man is looking in the car mirror.
Mal de Ojo Studio/Stocksy Javier Diez/Stocksy

Symptoms of anticipatory anxiety can occur whenever you think about what might happen during a specific situation in the future. Anxiety that occurs at the same time as the situation is known as situational anxiety.

Symptoms of anticipatory anxiety include:

  • frequently worrying about what might happen
  • imagining the worst case scenario
  • having trouble concentrating
  • having issues with managing emotions and mood
  • feeling emotionally numb
  • experiencing a lack of interest in hobbies or activities
  • feeling jumpy or restless
  • being tense or having sore muscles
  • experiencing a loss of appetite
  • having difficulty sleeping

Other symptoms of anxiety can include:

You may only experience some symptoms of anxiety. Some symptoms may be more intense than others, and you may also experience symptoms specific to your type of anxiety disorder.

Learn more about the symptoms of anxiety.

How to cope with anticipatory anxiety

You can take steps to cope with anticipatory anxiety in the moment. Some coping mechanisms will be more effective than others. Coping tips include the following:

Slow your breathing

Slow down your breathing and breathe deeply. This will help to reduce your heart rate and loosen tense muscles.

Imagine a positive outcome

While it can be challenging to avoid thinking about “what if” scenarios, try to think of something positive about the situation. This can help break the cycle of perceiving the future event as a threat.

Research the situation

Learning more about the future situation can help you feel more prepared. For example, if you experience anticipatory anxiety about a trip you need to take, look at maps and familiarize yourself with the location or route.

Make plans for later

If you are able to plan something fun or positive to do after the event itself, this can give you something to look forward to around the same time. For example, if you are anxious about an upcoming exam, plan to meet up with friends afterward to relax and unwind.

Set aside time

If you find yourself constantly worrying about a future event, set aside time to think through why it is causing you worry and to work out solutions to any problems. Solutions to problems might include finding a route to a specific location. This way, you can have designated time to think through the situation and can at other times distract yourself with more positive thoughts or activities.

Talk to somebody

Talking to somebody close to you about your worries can help to ease anxiety. Not only can it feel better to let out some of that anxiety but the other person may be able to help you to see the situation in a different, more positive way.

Try the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique

The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique is a specific distraction technique that allows you to focus on your present surroundings while steadying your breathing. Slow down your breathing and do the following:

  • Acknowledge five things you can see around you.
  • Acknowledge four things that you can reach out and touch.
  • Acknowledge three sounds that you can hear.
  • Acknowledge two things that you can smell.
  • Acknowledge one thing that you can taste.

You may find it challenging at first to distract yourself from your anxious thoughts, so this technique may take some practice. Over time, however, you may find that it helps you to focus on your current situation rather than on a situation in the future.

Seeking medical treatment

If a doctor has diagnosed you with an anxiety disorder, they will offer treatments that can help you cope with the specific condition.

Anxiety treatments typically include:

  • talk therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • medications, such as:
    • antianxiety medications like benzodiazepines
    • antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
    • beta-blockers

If you are receiving therapy treatment, your therapist will be able to provide you with tips for better managing the way you respond to symptoms of anticipatory anxiety.

What can trigger anticipatory anxiety?

Anticipatory anxiety can occur when you imagine what might happen in a situation that you are going to experience. Thoughts of situations that happen routinely can also cause anticipatory anxiety.

With anticipatory anxiety, you can feel anxious for the entire duration before a situation arrives. Unlike situational anxiety, which happens at the same time as the situation, anticipatory anxiety can last for months in advance of the actual event.

Any future event can cause anticipatory anxiety. This could be worrying about a one-time occasion such as flying for a scheduled vacation or business trip. It could also be for a recurring event, such as routinely being separated from a loved one when they have to leave the house.

Anticipatory anxiety is typically a symptom of another anxiety disorder. For example, worrying about flying can be a type of flight phobia called aerophobia. Worrying about being separated could be caused by separation anxiety disorder.

Who can experience anticipatory anxiety?

Anybody can experience anticipatory anxiety, particularly if an anxiety disorder is present. Around 40 million adults in the United States experience anxiety disorders. This is around 18.1% of the population.

Examples of anxiety disorders include:

Phobias are one of the most common types of anxiety, affecting around 19 million adults in the U.S. Phobias are followed by social anxiety disorder, which affects around 15 million adults.

Anxiety disorders can also affect children. Around 25.1% of children between the ages of 13 and 19 have some kind of anxiety disorder.

Females are more likely to be affected by generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, and PTSD. Males and females are equally likely to be affected by social anxiety disorder and OCD.

View our Anxiety Disorders hub for more information.

How is anticipatory anxiety diagnosed?

As it is typically a symptom of an anxiety disorder, a doctor will not specifically diagnose anticipatory anxiety. However, if you experience anticipatory anxiety, you may wish to contact your doctor to find out whether there is a specific underlying cause.

To diagnose an anxiety disorder, your doctor will ask questions about how long you have been experiencing your symptoms and how they affect your ability to go about your daily routine.

In some cases, they may do a physical exam and order a blood test to help rule out any underlying physical conditions that may be causing your symptoms.

Certain medications can cause anxiety. You may wish to take any medications you are currently taking along with you to your appointment.

If your doctor does not identify any underlying cause for ongoing anticipatory anxiety, they may refer you to a mental health specialist. This specialist will be able to assess whether or not a specific anxiety disorder is the root cause of your anticipatory anxiety. They will also help you learn coping mechanisms for when an episode occurs.

View our article Talking to Your Doctor About Anxiety to help you prepare for your appointment.

Learn more

Summary

Anticipatory anxiety is intense worry some people feel when thinking about an upcoming event. This could be a one-time occasion in the future such as traveling, or it could be a recurring situation like being away from a loved one.

Anticipatory anxiety is usually a symptom of an anxiety disorder, such as a phobia, social anxiety, or generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders tend to affect males more than females, but anybody can experience anxiety, including children.

Coping mechanisms for anticipatory anxiety can include focusing on your breathing and your immediate surroundings, finding out more about the situation that causes the anxiety, and talking to somebody close to you about your worries.

Talk therapies can also help you manage anticipatory anxiety. Your doctor may recommend CBT on its own or alongside medication prescribed to treat an anxiety disorder.

Contact your doctor if you frequently experience episodes of anticipatory anxiety. They will be able to conduct tests and, when necessary, refer you to a mental health specialist.

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Medical Reviewer: Kendra Kubala, PsyD
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 19
View All Anxiety Disorders Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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