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That Feeling in the Air? It Might Be Anticipatory Anxiety.

There are a lot of "what ifs" right now. And it's easy to fixate on worst-case-scenarios and the feeling of looming dread they create. Here's how to fight it.

Jonathan Muroya for Fatherly

For the last year, your brain has been conditioned to keep yourself and your family safe, because of course it has. This is a good thing. If, however, your brain automatically fixates on worst-case scenarios — What if COVID spikes again? What about people in groups? Will they still be safe and distant? How will I deal with people who don’t respect our boundaries? — and you can’t fend off that feeling of looming dread, you may be experiencing something called anticipatory anxiety, or fear about something that could happen to you in the future.

Anticipatory anxiety can be a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder, but people without a formal diagnosis experience it, too – especially right now. In a March 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association, 50% of participants reported they’re experiencing anxiety in this re-entry phase of the pandemic. 

According to neuroscientist and therapist Russ Kennedy, MD, author of Anxiety Rx, anticipatory anxiety is a way your brain tries to predict what’s coming, often based on events of the past. If you were bitten by a dog as a kid, you might avoid dogs today, or even worry that an animal will hurt your child.

“If you faced painful stress and uncertainty in the past, especially in childhood, your brain learns that it needs to stay vigilant to avoid uncertainty in the future,” he says. 

That hyper-vigilance can be beneficial if it actually protects you from harm. But fixating too much on those “what if’s” can be debilitating and counterproductive – ultimately keeping you from living in the present moment. Why? Your body doesn’t necessarily know the difference between imagined events and real ones. If you accept the scary story you’re telling yourself as true, your body will respond as if that horrible thing is actually happening. It’s up to you to intervene.

It’s completely understandable to experience anticipatory anxiety right now. But it’s also important to take steps to counter the thinking. Overcoming anticipatory anxiety takes work – but you and your family will be better off if you learn how to rein in those fears. Here are six therapist-recommended ways to escape anticipatory anxiety in the moment and the long-run.

1. Perform Some Grounding Exercises

Since anticipation is focused on imagined future events, Kennedy says it’s important to ground yourself in the present moment. One way to do that? Engage your five senses when you’re tempted to worry. Start by taking a few deep breaths and reminding yourself as scary as the future feels, it hasn’t happened yet. Then, choose a calming sensory experience to practice. Smell a calming essential oil or go outside and feel the breeze on your skin. Go for a walk around the block or turn on some music and do a dance party with your kids in the kitchen. Reminding your brain you’re in the present – safe and sound – will force you out of that future-focused feedback loop. 

2. Practice gratitude

Shemiah Derrick, a Chicago-based therapist, says it can be helpful to practice gratitude when you’re anxious about the future. That doesn’t mean you have to say “thank you” for your fears. Instead, make a list of things you’re grateful for that haven’t happened –– for example, if you’re fixated on fears about getting sick, remind yourself that you and your family are healthy today. Focusing on the here-and-now is a powerful way to stave off worries about the future.

3. Postpone the anxious feeling

If your anticipatory anxiety is overwhelming and distracting, Derrick suggests making a conscious decision not to worry right now and decide on a specific point in time you can address your fears. For example, if you’re nervous about your kid going to preschool during the pandemic, tell yourself you’ll address your concern if your child is exposed to the virus –– and in the meantime, continue practicing the precautions that’ll keep your family safe.

4. Gradually expose yourself to anxiety-provoking situations

Efforts to avoid anxiety often backfire, even exacerbating fears in the long-run, notes Alissa Jerud, PhD, a clinical psychologist and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead of avoiding situations that make you anxious, find tolerable ways to gradually and repeatedly approach them. Anxious about getting sick while eating out? Try eating at one restaurant a week. You’ll soon discover that you can tolerate your anxiety while enjoying your meal and, eventually, your anxiety will likely decrease on its own.

5. Let yourself get scared

Counterproductive as it sounds, sometimes, you just have to ride those anxious feelings out. 

For example, if you’re nervous about re-entering normal life during the pandemic, you could tell yourself that, yes, there’s a chance you could get COVID-19 eating in a restaurant or hanging out with a friend. 

It might feel overwhelming to imagine you or your family in a horrible situation, but entertaining those thoughts has some benefit. For one thing, acknowledging your fears can reinforce that even if the absolute worst does happen, you’ll find a way to deal with them. Allowing those worst-case scenarios to pop up also makes them less powerful. 

“Doing so will help you learn that you can tolerate these scary thoughts, which in turn will likely lead to a decrease in their frequency and intensity,” says Jerud.

6. See a therapist 

A bit of anxiety is par for the course right now — especially for parents. But if your anxiety is hard to control or it’s interfering with healthy day-to-day functioning, don’t hesitate to reach out to a doctor or therapist who can help you manage those anxious thoughts.