If you've ever felt the unending worry of an approaching deadline, or waiting for potentially bad news, then you know the feeling of anticipatory anxiety and just how bad it can be. And when you're agonizing over that moment, and waiting for it to be over, there are a slew of things you don't want to hear because you know it'll make matters worse.
"Anticipatory anxiety is when someone experiences a high level of anxiety when they think about a future situation," psychotherapist Maureen Werrbach, LCPC tells Bustle. Stress triggered by a flight-or-flight response will occur in situations where we are in danger, but "anticipatory anxiety comes up when we are in no real danger, when we think about something that may or may not happen in the future," says Werrbach.
As a certified health coach, I work with people on reducing anxiety, so that they feel more at ease and less stressed in the day. Overall, people who have fewer stresses are more likely to have a better sense of wellbeing than those who are struggling with concerns. When you're unsure of how to handle a situation, it can be challenging to navigate, and it's common to feel at a loss at times especially when the outcome is high stakes and unknown. That being said, if you know someone having anxiety over a particular event, there are a few key ways to show your support in helping them through that event. Experts say to stay away from these eight things when talking with someone experiencing anticipatory anxiety.
1. "It's Not That Bad."
"Saying it's not that bad is not acknowledging the real fear that the person is experiencing from visualizing that scenario," Executive Coach & Psychologist for High Achievers Globally, Perpetua Neo, tells Bustle. When someone has anticipatory anxiety, it feels really important in that moment, specifically, so this type of comment wouldn't comfort them.
2. "Just Wipe Away Those Thoughts From Your Mind."
This comment makes it seem as though someone who has anticipatory anxiety can just get rid of that fear and worry that's ever so present in that moment. "You can't wipe the thoughts away from your head — suppressing them only makes them [worse]," says Neo. Instead, if the person wants to discuss their worries, offer to listen. It may be cathartic for them.
3. "It's All In Your Head."
"Saying it's all in their heads will make them feel as though there is something wrong with them, and stigma increases anticipatory anxiety," says Neo. In that moment they are super on edge, and saying something like this makes them doubt whether or not that fear is real, and it can cause shame. Instead, try validating their feelings. Though you may not be able to solve the problem, the person will feel heard if you try to understand their fears.
4. "Think Positively."
Positivity doesn't always work, especially when the feeling of anxiety cannot be controlled, says Neo. Because your friend is worried about an upcoming event, and that anxiety may not be relieved until that event is over, they may not be able to think positively.
5. "Don't Worry About It."
People who are worrying about a bad outcome in a situation, often hear advice of "don't worry about it, everything will be OK" as unhelpful, Inna Khazan, PhD Clinical Psychologist, tells Bustle. "The most helpful advice is to say: 'I know you are really worried about it, this is important. I am here for you, how can I help,'" says Khazan.
6. "Just Relax."
If relaxation was an option, the anxious person in your life would gladly take it. But when struggling with anticipatory anxiety, it often isn't. "People who are experiencing pre-performance anticipatory anxiety often hear this," says Khazan. "Prior to an important performance, your body needs an extra boost to perform at your best. This boost is physiological activation, with sensations such as faster heart beat and breathing," says Khazan. When this amped up feeling begins to feel like stress or anxiety, the person experiencing it may try to fight it by attempting to relaxing, often making the feeling worse, says Khazan. If the person is struggling with relaxing, offer your support by letting them know you're there if they need you.
7. "It Didn't Happen Yet, So Stop Thinking About It."
If you say something like, "stop thinking about it," it dismisses the validity of anticipatory anxiety that's currently real and upsetting to whomever is suffering, says Werrbach. Even though it hasn't happened yet, chances are this person is playing this situation out repeatedly in their head, making them feel like they're going through it in the moment. If the person is willing to open up, discuss what is causing them anxiety, and perhaps think of ways they can best tackle it when it happens. This way they feel prepared instead of dismissed.
If you know someone suffering from anticipatory anxiety, you'll want focus on being there for them in whatever way is needed. Be patient, understanding, and listen to the concerns, and they will feel heard.