Anticipatory Anxiety – We all do it

Does anyone else feel this way? Sometimes the sound of my kids screaming conjures up the sensation of nails against a chalk board. It’s not the sounds itself but the fear and anticipation of what’s to come. I find myself with my shoulders hunched up, a physical reminder of the tension I carry as I wonder about how to occupy them or of course what to feed them for dinner. Yet at night when they are fast asleep and I’m away from it, it all seems so simple and I wonder “Why did I stress?”

It was a video on the stress response that finally made me understand what my brain puts my body through. We all know that we have the sympathetic or “flight or fight” response and sure this came in very useful for our ancestors who had legitimate concerns about being eaten by some wild animal. For us..not so much, yet our response to stress is the same. The muscle tension, pressure in the chest, racing heart beat, sweaty palms –  it all goes together into a nice package we just label as stress. 

There is a key difference between humans and animals when it comes to how we experience stress. Whereas animals certainly have the “fight or flight response”, as they should, do they find themselves worrying about this possibility, absolutely not. The discrepancy here is that we as humans experience what is termed anticipatory anxiety – we worry before the stressor even occurs. We worry at the thought of the stressor possibility occurring and live through the stress response whether it becomes a reality or not.

I’m a victim of anticipatory anxiety, more than I would like to admit. The escalating sounds of my childrens’ voices will send me unknowingly into a full physical response, heart beating, shallow breathing as I anticipate the possibility of a tantrum. Our brain is smart, it works by association. If it sees a pattern too often, it will start to link emotions, behaviours and feelings together such that it’s hard to know which came first.

While it can be difficult to break the cycle, just knowing that we all fall prey to this at some point in our day or week is extremely powerful. It gives us the ability to take a step back and ask ourselves what is actually happening around us, not what we think is about to happen. The funny thing is that whether we anticipate the stress response or live the stress response, the detrimental results are unfortunately the same.

So take a moment to think about those things that might cause you anticipatory anxiety in your day; whether it be in your home, your work or even at school. Most importantly know that you are not alone. It can be hard to stop the cycle but just the awareness of the physical symptoms can sometimes be enough to bring a sense of clarity to the situation. So next time my kids are screaming and the house seems in chaos, I  will try to roll my shoulders back, take a deep breath and maybe even smile because at the end of the day, “this too shall pass”.

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