Anticipatory anxiety is a symptom of anxiety, it is not a diagnosis or disorder. However, many people who suffer from anxiety or have anxiety traits have these common concerns/worries of “what if” thoughts. Many of us find ourselves predicting the future by trying to foresee every possible negative outcome to a situation that may or may not happen. These concerns or worries can be categorized as anticipatory anxiety. There are different degrees of anticipatory anxiety, as the symptoms range from mild to severe.
What If Syndrome is NOT actually a syndrome but a term I use to explain the symptoms of anticipatory anxiety. It is when people think about an event or situation and think of all the different ways the event could go wrong and try to plan for what they feel will be the most common negative outcomes. Unfortunately, most of us do not have a working crystal ball, so predicting the future is difficult at best. If you find that this resonates with you, ask yourself “Does the outcome change when I What If?” Most of the time, the answer to that question is No. So why do we continue to do something we know does not change the outcome? Many of us feel that if we are prepared for the worst, when it happens we will be ready. One of the issues with this type of thinking is that you cannot possibly come up with contingency plans for every possible negative outcome and it actually has the opposite effect. The process of What If is mentally and emotionally draining and increases stress levels and anxiety instead of decreasing it.
Possible ways to reduce What If Syndrome is to be aware that you are doing it and to learn what is triggering this behavior.
Insight into your behavior is a great first step; here are some concrete things you can do:
1. Utilize thought stopping: A technique where you realize the behavior, put a stop sign up in your head and have a prepared other topic to think about. If you do not have something else to replace the thought with, your mind will continue to return to the thought.
2. Exercise: Exercise is a great way to reduce anxiety symptoms, it is recommended that 30 minutes of Cardio exercise up to 5x’s a week decreases anxiety symptoms.
3. Distractions: Find something else to do, play with your kids, pet, or engage someone in conversation.
4. Reach out to your support system: Sometimes talking about these issues with a friend or loved one, helps people let go of the concern/worry.
On the other end of the spectrum, examples of a severe reaction would be someone with PTSD or a fear or phobia who may become panicked at the anticipation of that fear becoming a reality, such as a fear of flying. Someone with a severe fear of flying may have a panic attack at the thought of being on a plane and may dread an upcoming vacation due to this fear. The anticipatory anxiety feels just as real and threatening as the fear itself. If you suffer from some of these more severe symptoms please contact your healthcare provider as a Psychologist, Psychiatrist or Social Worker who has experience and training in working with fears and phobias can assist you with these issues.
Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to be considered therapy or treatment for these symptoms. This blog is for informational purposes only.
Dr. Deb is a successful Psychologist who practices in New York City. She is an Anxiety Specialist who works with adolescents and adults providing both individual and couples counseling.