Anticipatory Anxiety Can Be So Much Worse Than The Actual Event


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My son was pacing around the living room the other night twisting his hair. This means he is incredibly anxious. I know this because, well, he is my son and has been in my life for seventeen years. But it’s also the exact thing I do when I’m anxious.

I asked him what was up. 

In short, he was feeling very anxious about school. He was about to start his senior year learning virtually (something he felt really good about this summer). He’d seen his schedule and said how confused he was and how he didn’t know what to do.

He didn’t sleep much that night, and he was up really early the first morning of school and was signed in to his computer.

I told him we’d just take it one day at a time and if he had questions, he could ask his advisor.

Well, we made it through the first week of school and we are halfway through our second. My son feels better and after a few hours on his first day was like, “Oh, this isn’t so hard.”

For someone that struggles with anxiety, there is nothing like anticipatory anxiety. You know, when something new or different is about to happen and you just can’t get comfortable with it.

I don’t like the unknown. It can send me into a flood of “what ifs” and I start telling myself I will never be able to figure out something new.

Hell, even when there is something really good coming up — like a few months ago when I got a job opportunity I was incredibly excited about — I was practically paralyzed because it all seemed like so much.

It meant learning something new, changing my weekly routine, and worrying if I was going to be good at it because if I wasn’t, I’d be replaced.

See what I did there? I ruined it and had already envisioned myself fired before I even started, because my anxiety wouldn’t shut the hell up.

I’m also an expert at imagining false scenarios and getting myself really worked up about what could happen. 

It’s really bad when my kids travel without me. I am always anxious and have a hard time concentrating until I get a text or call letting me know if they’ve arrived safely.

If I’m driving or traveling somewhere and I’m not familiar with the area, my heart pounds the entire time and I usually can’t sleep the night before.

I go over and over different scenarios in my mind, oftentimes until I feel like I might vomit.

And I hate to admit it, but even when something fantastic is happening, like taking a weekend away with my kids, my anxiety kicks me in the ass and I start to think about how preparing and traveling is going to affect my work, my sleep, my eating habits, and I how I probably won’t be able to take a shit for four days when I return.

The thing is, I’ve gotten to know my anxiety pretty well. It always wants an answer. Like, yesterday. That’s why when there’s an event or situation coming up, I’m anxious because I’m not sure how it’s going to go. So instead of just waiting to see what happens, I try and figure out all the possible scenarios in my mind, as though it will make me more prepared somehow. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

Anxiety is inflated by the unknown. Even when you know something will be fun and benefit you, anxiety doesn’t know the full story. That makes you feel out of control. So, it fills in the blanks with bad scenarios and lies.

Trying to take something in and sort it out when it hasn’t happened yet is hard AF. There are times I’ve just said “no” to opportunities and invites because I’m not sure what the outcome will be, even if I know logically that there isn’t anything to be afraid of. More often than not, the thinking about the upcoming event, the new school year, the new job, the move, is so much worse than actually living it — and I know this. But anxiety doesn’t listen to logic.

Why is it that hindsight is always 20/20, but we play a game of doom and gloom when we are thinking about something that hasn’t even happened yet?

This way of thinking makes it so I can’t concentrate on the present moment, and it’s something I struggle with every day — especially lately. I’m dreading the upcoming winter and wondering how the hell we are going to make it through during this pandemic.

I keep telling myself I probably won’t be able to hold it together when I think about all the things I can’t control. 

But then I look at everything else we’ve gotten through as a family — a divorce, the past six months of dealing with COVID-19, and being cut off from so many things that we love — and I remember something: it really wasn’t as bad as the nightmare that I formed in my head at the beginning.

We’ve gotten through hard times, and that means we can do it again. And again, and again.

So if you’re struggling with anticipatory anxiety, it is a real thing and you’re not alone. But don’t forget you’ve figured out some really tough shit before and if you can make it to the next thing (you can), you are going to do just fine. Tell your wildly wandering imagination to STFU — you’ll figure it out without anxiety’s “help,” thanks.

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