At some point in our lives, we will all feel anxious about something. Our nerves may get the best of us before an important test or a job interview; we may worry about how the weather will affect our future travel plans. Passing nerves and anxiety are completely normal to feel. When this anxiety about the future becomes a constant and daily occurrence, however, it can become debilitating. When a person begins to worry so much about what will happen in the future that their daily life is impacted, they may be suffering from anticipatory anxiety.
To some, the future is full of exciting new opportunities, while for others, danger lurks around every new corner. It can be so difficult to explain anticipatory anxiety to those who do not suffer from it, but I promise that you are not alone.
Here are 5 struggles that only people with anticipatory anxiety will understand.
1. Anticipatory Anxiety Is More Than Just Feeling Nervous
Having the occasional butterfly in your stomach is very different than having constant fear and dread of the future looming over you. You are not just feeling a simple worry about a small event that will pass quickly; anticipatory anxiety brings about a constant fear of what could happen in the future. Because of the overwhelming nature of this anxiety, you may also feel a range of other emotions, such as anger, confusion, numbness, irritability, and sadness. You are not just nervous; you are angry and nervous. You are sad and nervous. You are numb and somehow also still nervous.
You may begin to feel physical symptoms and side effects alongside your anticipatory anxiety. You may develop headaches, stomach problems, fatigue, changes in your appetite, changes in your sleep patterns, or muscle tension. This type of anxiety can begin to affect and interrupt your entire life. Someone with anticipatory anxiety could be feeling physically ill, along with a myriad of different emotions. Trying to get through your ordinary daily routine can feel impossible during these moments of anxiety. This is why it is so important to understand that anticipatory anxiety is so much more than just feeling nervous.
2. Chronic Anxiety Is Debilitating
When your body is constantly in an anxious state, your entire life can be negatively impacted. Not only will your emotional and physical states be altered, but your overall mental wellness and well-being can be as well. You may lose interest in the hobbies and activities that you used to love, and those around you may not understand why. They may not understand how triggering certain activities have become for you or that you are simply just too emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted to live the life you used to.
Chronic anxiety can also cause you to become so preoccupied with a specific event or situation that you have difficulty focusing or concentrating on anything else. You become so fixated on this situation that your brain can even begin to see these future worries as actual occurrences. Anticipatory anxiety can make you believe that those things you are afraid of in the future are happening in the present because it causes your brain to forget about tense; you believe that it is happening, even if nothing actually is. People with anticipatory anxiety have a difficult time separating themselves from the things that trigger their anxiety. Just because a situation does not seem concerning to you does not mean that it is not debilitating to someone else. Always be kind to those around you because you never know what someone else might be going through.
3. Telling Us “Not To Worry About It” Won’t Help
I am almost 100% positive that telling someone not to worry about something has never actually made a person less worried. By telling someone not to worry about a situation or concern that feels like an incredible threat to their well-being, you are invalidating not only their emotions but also their past trauma and experiences. Anticipatory anxiety can be triggered if you ever find yourself in a situation that has scared and/or harmed you in the past. Since we have already had a negative reaction to that particular experience, our brains associate that experience with danger. Telling someone not to worry about something is not a constructive way to help them through their anxiety; if I could stop feeling anxiety by telling myself not to worry, then I would already be doing that. Anticipatory anxiety is a chronic problem that cannot be solved by a few well-wishes. Our brains are not seeing things as they truly are because our anxiety is in control. Overcoming anxiety takes time and patience. Instead of telling us not to worry about it, try asking us how you can help make the situation more comfortable. Offer to stay with us during high-stress situations, and offer to help us take a moment to deconstruct how we are feeling. We need you to be there for us as we work through our anxiety; we don’t need you to dismiss it.
4. We Don’t See The World Through The Same Lens As You
What seems like a normal trip to the grocery store or just a walk around the block to you can bring up debilitating anxiety, panic, PTSD, and trauma responses for us. You see the future as the possibility for good, and we see it as a continuation of every bad thing that has ever happened to us. We see our pain on repeat and the potential for the panic attacks to come back; we are so aware of our triggers and what has hurt us in the past that we do everything we can to avoid them, even if that means sacrificing our quality of life by withdrawing from the things and people we love. It can be so difficult for us to be excited about new opportunities because we tend to see everything that could go wrong before we recognize all of the things that could go right.
We may be happy that we got a promotion at work, but we may also see that promotion as a terrifying wave of new responsibilities about to crash down upon us. Traveling to new places means encountering new situations that we are entirely unprepared for. Going to crowded bars, clubs, and concerts can make us feel claustrophobic, even if part of us really wants to be there. People with anticipatory anxiety want to live full, exciting lives, but there are so many variables posing as obstacles that we have to find a way around before we can truly begin to live. Our minds will always jump to the worst-case scenario, and this reaction is often far beyond our control. Maybe your glass is always half-full, but for us, we will always see it as half-empty.
5. We Aren’t Being Overdramatic
Anticipatory anxiety is a chronic, tangible experience, and it can severely affect the overall quality of someone’s life. We are not avoiding social gatherings or classes because we are trying to cause drama and bring attention to ourselves. We are trying to save ourselves from the potential harm we see in engaging in those behaviors and going to those places. We can see the fire before someone even strikes a match, and our brains don’t always listen when we tell them that there aren’t any flames.
When we are having panic attacks, we are not looking for anyone’s attention. We are just looking for an exit. We just want to get past that moment. Our triggers are always at the forefront of our minds, and we cannot help but be consumed by them sometimes. If we could stop worrying and feeling all of the intense emotions coursing through us, we would. Most of us would probably do anything to never have our anxiety draw attention to ourselves again. To move about life quietly without this constant interruption would be a dream.
We are not asking for you to fix us or erase our anxiety; we just need support and reassurance when we are having trouble seeing past the endless stream of “what if’s?”.