Anticipatory anxiety: bleeding before you are cut

Worried woman.
Do you often spend days dreading upcoming events?

My last column looked at the power of anticipation, and how looking forward to positive events is a free source of happiness. However, what if you rarely allow yourself to look forward and get excited?


Not only that, what if you are more familiar with negative anticipation, and frequently spend days dreading an upcoming event?


Anticipating positive events, whether big or small, is crucial for mental health. Not looking forward to future experiences is associated with very low levels of well-being.


Unsurprisingly, research confirms depressed people tend to anticipate less positive future experiences.


Meanwhile, anxious people tend to anticipate more negative future experiences. Whereas a depressed person might feel flat and think there’s little to look forward to, the anxious person is inclined to worry about an upcoming event – for example, “What if XYZ happens at the office party, I’m dreading it”.


Of course, this division is a little simplistic. Depression and anxiety often co-exist – anxiety can be a symptom of depression, and it’s similarly common to have depression that’s triggered by an anxiety disorder.


Additionally, both depressed and anxious people often adopt an understandable but unhelpful strategy, one of defensive pessimism. Defensive pessimism is encapsulated in expressions such as “Don’t dare to hope” or “It’s the hope that kills you”. If things often seem to go wrong, you might think: I’m not going to be disappointed and have my hopes dashed again. Investing in potentially positive things leaves you feeling uneasy, so you “play it safe” and dampen expectations.


The problem is, “playing it safe” like this doesn’t work. It hurts your mood and well-being. We all need things to look forward to, so it’s important to invest emotionally, to hope. As Nelson Mandela wrote while reflecting on his decades spent in prison, it’s important to take the risk of coveting optimism and to keep ‘one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward.’



The other side of the coin is when you do think ahead but it’s not positive anticipation; rather, you are gripped by anticipatory anxiety, negatively anticipating all the things that could go wrong.


Like defensive pessimism, anticipatory anxiety is an understandable but misguided strategy. You might think, “It would be terrible if XYZ happened, I need to be prepared.” You might think, “expect the worst, and you won’t be disappointed”.


There’s two important points to be made here. Firstly, you can prepare for something without worrying about it. Rumination, worry, “what if?” thinking – it might feel like you’re doing something proactive, but you’re not.


Secondly, is it really the case that if you expect the worst, you won’t be disappointed if the worst happens? Does it really soften the blow?


No, according to a recent study which conducted a psychological experiment involving college students prior to their exam results. Appropriately titled ‘Ready for the worst?’, the researchers found ‘no evidence’ for any psychological benefits to using this strategy – students felt worse in advance, but didn’t reap any emotional reward upon receiving their results.


Now, some people may not be fully convinced on this point. You might think, “I remember when I got the bad news about XYZ; it would have been even worse if I hadn’t been so prepared for it”.


Maybe, but how big a difference did it make? For example, a student who gets disappointing exam results isn’t going to be in great form if their worst fears are realised – they will still be disappointed. Even if their disappointment is slightly lessened, was it worth all the worry and emotional pain that preceded it?


It’s a costly mistake to focus excessively on how you might feel at one moment in time. Don’t underestimate the costs of routinely expecting the worst. Think of all that time worrying over something which may not even happen. Think of the effect this has on your mood and your ability to relax.


It’s like you are bleeding before you are cut, as anxiety experts Dr Martin Seif and Dr Sally Winston put it in their book Overcoming Anticipatory Anxiety.


Or, as the Stoic thinker Seneca observed almost 2,000 years ago, ‘He who suffers before it is necessary, suffers more than is necessary’.