Imagine that your whole day is consumed by “What if” questions, mainly about all of the things that could go wrong.
What if I go to school and get beat up by a bully, maybe even killed?
What if I go to work and can’t deliver what I promised?
What if I have to go to the bathroom and there isn’t one around?
Hi, I’m Alan, and I have anticipatory anxiety.
Hi Alan, me too.
All of the above “what if questions haunted me for many years (yes even the bathroom one).” This is a product of what is known as Anticipatory Anxiety. At its lowest form, you find yourself anxious prior to going out somewhere, because you want things to be perfect. At its middle form, maybe you are asking yourself if your significant other really loves you or if a situation you are in will not go the way you want. At its highest form, it cripples you completely and stops you from even leaving your house.
So why does it happen? I believe it comes from several places in the subconscious.
- The first is the need to feel perfect or believe that life should be perfect. So, you are constantly in a “what if” anxious spin about what would go wrong to not make it perfect.
- The second is self-esteem. Once damaged, it is not very easy to repair self-esteem and it can cripple you. If you have so much doubt about your own life and ability, how can you not be anxious that you are going to screw up the next thing you do.
- The third in this list is that you are focused on something you have little control and no knowledge of what it will be (unless you can predict it), which is the future.
So again, hi, I’m Alan and I did all of the above. I will still say that I am at best a recovering anticipatory anxiety person, but in truth, sometimes still deal with it. After all, it’s hard to break a 30-year habit. Much like blame, anger also plays a part in anticipatory anxiety.
Unfortunately, when we are at the height of an anticipatory anxiety issue, we are ruminating in our head all of the “what if” scenarios about the future, most of which do not end well. So, we are scared (literally) to do anything. Fear drives anger in that, when approached by someone who wants us to do something while in this episode, we feel anger in us, because we want an outlet and excuse not to do it. So, we lash out with the anger, both mentally and sometimes physically in the hopes of avoiding the situation that is making us anxious.
Yes, this sounds counterproductive and it is. In most cases, anxiety robs us of our ability to see situations clearly and realistically. Particularly in the case of anticipatory anxiety. Of course, this kind of anxiety can lead to depression and other types of anxiety as well.
Looking at it from the bullying perspective, you can spot, in many cases, a child dealing with anticipatory anxiety, because they will have an excuse or almost any excuse not to go to school. Of course, while at school, the rumination doesn’t end, because they are constantly wondering when a bully might attack them. So another indicator might be a drop in grades or a call from the school saying that your child seems to not be focusing.
But certainly, it doesn’t end at the end of school. We can have it about work, about life, about our family and loved ones, and even about ourselves. If you find yourself constantly asking yourself “what if” questions about future events that you have no control over, it is time to ask for help. We all have times of anticipatory anxiety. I knew a lawyer who threw up in the bathroom before going into any court case from nerves. Nerves is just another anticipatory anxiety with a physiological affect. Most of us have some form of this going on. It is when it grows out of control and stops you from doing the things you love in life that it is truly harmful to you and to your quality of life.
I had at least one whole year of this. How did I stop it? I went ahead and did the things my “what if” mind was telling me not to and nothing happened. So yes, this is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy concept. I also taught myself through meditation and mindfulness to try to stay focused on the present and stop being a perfectionist or worrying about things I had no control over…LIKE THE FUTURE!
I know too many people who are crippled with anticipatory anxiety and stay in their house for fear of what might happen if they leave. If I didn’t break my cycle, I would have missed one of the best weekends of my life this last weekend.
I went hiking in the Shenandoah. It was amazing. I saw nature, waterfalls, a snake, tons of deer, and a black bear climb a tree and climb down it. All the things I just mentioned would have been “what ifs” at some point in my time. But here’s some truth time. Before we left for the trip, I didn’t sleep great. I got up and felt anticipatory anxiety. Only slightly, but it was there. And then, the coup de grace, I got angry with my wife before we left, because I was anxious. Yes, it still happens to me no matter how aware I am. But it didn’t stop me and we had the best weekend. Of course, I have worked very hard to lower this anxiety and even most of the time not have it.
But like many things, it can flare up and you have to learn to get past it. It is a constant battle, but one I am winning. I’ll let you know when my wife tells me I’ve won the war (it will be the day she can take a trip with me that doesn’t start with me being angry). So, we are all guilty of something. I promised myself I would be honest here and I hope it helps you if you suffer with this too. None of us are alone and all of us are capable of getting out and experiencing the magic of our lives and wealth that comes from experiences we have. And yes, the picture at the beginning of this article is one from the weekend with the bear in the tree.
I am so grateful I didn’t miss this experience in my life.