Tips for Managing Fear of the Future
Have you ever experienced anticipation anxiety? For anyone with social anxiety, this is usually a pretty common thing. You worry in advance about any number of social or performance events, and that worry can get in the way of living your life.
When we talk about anticipation anxiety, we are talking about anxiety that you have about a future event. That might be a party you have to attend, a speech you have to give, or a job interview you’d rather not go to.
Often, our anxious predictions can even translate into real-life situations if we think about them too much. What we desperately want not to happen (we have no one to talk to at the party; we freeze up during our speech; we bomb the interview) happens because we’re so caught up in our anxiety about what might happen. (Read that a few times so it sinks in).
In fact, I think social anxiety is a bit of an anomoly in which you can actually worry yourself into the negative situation you are trying to avoid. This doesn’t usually happen to people who worry about planes crashing or other general worries. Nope, if you worry about how you come across to others, then chances are you will freeze up and appear unfriendly, which then feeds into exactly what you were trying to avoid. I know it’s tough. So, let’s see what we can do about it.
Interrupt the Anxiety
First things first. If you are stuck in a worry or panic session right now about a future social or performance event, the first thing you should do is interrupt that chain of thinking.
You can do this by engaging in some other task that helps to distract you. For me, it’s best if it’s a task that completely engages my mind. It’s almost like you are carried away from your worry momentarily. I actually like to edit academic papers (I know you are thinking, what a geek); but that’s what I do for one of my day jobs, and it’s soothing in a way. These are ESL papers and they take all my concentration.
But, you could accomplish the same thing by finding something that engages your mind. Maybe you could listen to an engaging podcast or read a book that catches your interest. A guided meditation might even help. The key is to actually feel transported away in that moment.
Schedule a Worry Session
What, worry on purpose? Yep, it’s the best way to do it. Rather than worry all day every day until an event, schedule a worry session. For example, maybe from 5:15 to 5:30 every day, you plan to worry.
What this looks like in practice is up to you. Maybe you let yourself imagine the worst-case scenario, or maybe you actually make plans to avert disaster or just be better prepared.
Then, if you find yourself worrying at other times of the day, tell yourself: Nope, I’ll deal with that during my worry session.
Why does this help? Remember, worry is not planning. You are not actually accomplishing anything when you worry. You might think you are preventing disaster, but unless you are taking concrete steps when you worry, you’re really not accomplishing much.
And in fact, worry just makes it harder to plan. So, plan a worry session and then get all your worries out during that time.
Imagine a Positive Outcome
Guess what? Just as you can imagine a worst-case scenario, you can also imagine the best possible outcome. The future really is an unknown, and in some ways you create it. Instead of thinking negatively about what is about to happen, see what happens if you convert this negativity into hope—or even confidence.
Ride the Anxiety
Nope, you don’t have to get caught up in that anxious wave that just took hold of you. Instead, you can learn how to ride the waves. This is the basis of mindfulness. Learn to notice you anxiety without reacting to it. It is safe to just let it be and ride it out. It’s when you start reacting to your initial anxiety that it spirals out of control.
Control What You Can
There are absolutely some things that are within your control that you should worry about. Well, not so much worry as plan for. If you’re giving a speech, you could make sure to practice and get comfortable in the setting where you will be speaking. If you’re going to a party, you could find out who will be there and think of ideas for small talk topics. If you’re going on a job interview, research the company and come up with at least one good question to ask (you know they are going to ask you this!).
While you never want to get caught up in an illusion of control, there are absolutely certain things that you can and should do to help manage your anxiety about a situation. The key is to recognize what you can and can’t control. If it helps, write down a list of what you can control vs. what you can’t.
For example, on a recent call I was doing, I would have written down that I could control checking the technology, cleaning my desk, preparing a list of questions, and having a positive mindset. In contrast, I could not control how the person perceived me or whether the enjoyed talking to me.
Whatever you do, don’t avoid a situation that is causing you anticipation anxiety. The reason for this is that typically anxiety lessens after you enter the feared situation. (If it does not, you will probably benefit from some sort of gradual desensitization therapy).
In a study done in 2000, it was found that people with social anxiety experiencing increased anxiety during anticipation of a speech, but that their anxiety actually decreased when they began to give the speech. They also found that people without social anxiety had an increased heart rate prior to giving the speech (but they did not recognize it as anxiety).
So, two things here: First, if you actually go through with a situation, your anxiety will go down. Keep doing it, and eventually your brain will learn not to fear it. Second, people without social anxiety get revved up too before a speech; but, they likely attribute that feeling as excitement rather than fear.
Develop a Relaxation Reponse
If you haven’t already learned to develop a relaxation response, get on this now! It’s the one thing that made a huge change in my public speaking anxiety. Basically, what you need to do is learn how to enter a state of deep relaxation, using strategies such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (this worked for me), guided imagery, or meditation. Then, pair that relaxation with the worried thoughts. Eventually you’ll find it hard to get worked up about the situation that was causing you anxiety.
Challenge Your Thoughts
Finally, it’s always important to be aware of and challenging your thoughts. I like to do this with the app Woebot.io. While it sounds like a simple procedure—identify faulty thinking and replace it with more realistic thinking—it only works if you do it over and over again. Your brain is like a muscle, and you need to train it to react in a certain way.
Hopefully you found all of this helpful! Just to recap, if you are struggling with anticipation anxiety, it’s best to interrupt the anxiety, schedule a worry session, imagine a positive outcome, ride the anxiety, control what you can, avoid avoidance, develop a relaxation response, and challenge your thoughts. How about you? Let me know in the comments how you cope with anticipation anxiety.
Related Articles about Worrying
- 6 Key Steps to Stop Worrying
- 11 Types of Thinking That Make Social Anxiety Worse
- The Best Apps to Reduce Social Anxiety