It’s called anticipatory anxiety.
The first time I heard the term ‘anticipatory anxiety’, I was listening to Nat Berman, CEO of Uncoached on Jeff Baietto’s podcast InJoy Success episode 65. He was talking about cold calling, something he hated. As he explained, the anticipation of making the calls was worse than the reality of cold calling.
The term caught my attention. I thought, “I know what anticipatory grief is as a caregiver, I’ve certainly experienced it, but anticipatory anxiety?” It turns out it’s a thing.
Anticipatory anxiety is when we worry about things that haven’t happened yet. Sound familiar? As caregivers, we are always worried about our loved one’s health, finances and emotional well-being. I think anticipatory anxiety is often where we live caregivers and it’s exhausting.
- 1. We worry about potential tasks we may have to take on as a caregiver.
- 2. We worry about events that have not happened yet like a heart attack or the onset of dementia.
3. Then there is worry based on learned behavior. If a loved one has fallen or been in a car accident, we worry that it will happen again.
None of these worries are unfounded. However, when we worry about events and tasks that are not real, we live in a projected reality. Anticipating these disasters in our mind, often without evidence, results in our mind reacting as if the imagined disaster is real and the body reacts to these thoughts. The reaction is anxiety producing chemicals being released into the bloodstream. It shows up in trouble concentrating, trouble managing moods or emotions, lost interest in activities and/or eating, all of which caregivers go through and are signs of anticipatory anxiety. As Mr. Berman says, “It’s like being in purgatory. We are stuck in a place that is not real, but we are suffering.”
I am not good with blood or gore, not in movies and certainly not in life, which is why I had anticipatory anxiety about wound care. In fact, I am on record saying if my mother ever got a wound, we would have to hire someone to care for it. No fair, you guessed it. At the beginning of the pandemic, she wound up with a wound which required medication and dressings. You know what? The worry about a potential wound was worse than what it took to care for the it. What I thought it would entail was quite different from what I needed to do, and what I was capable of handling what I needed to do.
I worry about Mom needing to use her wheelchair full time. If that happens, she won’t be able to stay in her house. Worrying about having to move her out of the house just makes my heart palpitate. But she is still steady using her walker and she is careful about moving around the house. I need to put aside this worry until something changes.
Mom worries that she will wind up with Alzheimer’s. If you think we caregivers have anticipatory anxiety, chances are your caree has it twice as bad since so much of their world can feel out of control. We need to honor and validate their worries while we reassure them as much as possible.
What about anticipatory anxiety that is based on learned behavior? What we learn after a loved one falls, has an accident or wanders rachets up our anxiety. It’s not unfounded, but we have to find a way to not live in the anticipation of another incident or that it will be worse the next time it happens.
Anticipatory grief AND anxiety, it’s no wonder we caregivers are mentally exhausted and often stressed to the breaking point. So how do we combat anticipatory anxiety?
- 1. Sleep, exercise and good nutrition all play a part in managing anxiety. Lying in bed at night worrying will only increase your anxiety. Leave your phone out of the bedroom if you can. Stop using electronics an hour before bedtime. Keep your bedroom dark and cool. Try cutting back on caffeine. Explore the use of melatonin, which is a hormone that your brain produces in response to darkness and can help regulate your circadian rhythms with sleep.
2. When you start to worry ask yourself, “Is this a realistic worry?” Be honest. If the answer is no, distract yourself with something else like a walk, book or conversation that does not include your worry. If the answer is yes, especially if the worry is based on learned behavior, then make a plan. Once the plan is in place, let it go using distraction. The first time you try to let it go will not work 100%, but it’s like any other exercise or practice. The more you do it the better you get at it.
3. Voice your fears to help them feel less overwhelming. Letting others know you are anxious can be like a pressure valve letting go of some steam. If you need them to just listen and not fix the situation, let them know. Then let them distract you with something you both enjoy whether it is a walk or a game of cards.
Disclaimer: The material in this blog is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace, nor does it replace, consulting with a physician, lawyer, accountant, financial planner or other qualified professional.
Deb is available as a caregiver consultant. She will answer the question: “Where do I start?” and find the resources to alleviate your stress. If you would like to invest a half hour to learn how she can help you, please contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org