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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Anticipatory Anxiety

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Today's news is often filled with alarming information and images-war with Iraq, North Korea's nuclear weapons, terror alerts, a rocky economy. Although, historically, there have always been times of uncertainty, for many college students this is the first time when it seems like national and international crises could possibly touch their own lives or the lives of those they love. For many students, the cumulative effect of these vague threats of danger is to create a chronic heightened sense of worry and vigilance. Psychologists call this "anticipatory anxiety," an emotional state of what-will-happen-next fears. This is a normal and understandable reaction to the times we live in, but there are ways to manage and cope with these feelings.

Emotional Reactions May Vary

While nearly everyone feels stressed during times of crisis and uncertainty, the ways that anticipatory anxiety is experienced and expressed varies from individual to individual. Some people may be temperamentally more "high strung" and biologically more vulnerable to anxiety. Although some people are quite aware that they are experiencing stress due to these kinds of worries, for other people the worries may operate "under the surface" and they may not connect that some of the stress that they are experiencing is related to these worries.

You also may find that your reactions are stronger if you have family or friends in the military or in emergency response/public safety positions or living in major metropolitan areas (e.g., New York, Washington, D.C.). Additionally, your reactions may be more intense if you have survived other serious traumatic events or if you have had particular difficulty coping with previous crises.

Common Anticipatory Anxiety Reactions

  • Feelings: anxious, fearful, angry, confused, hopeless, losing control, numb, sad, moody, irritable, guilty.
  • Behaviors: withdrawal from others or activities, disrupted routines, startle reactions, easily crying
  • Cognitions: preoccupation with possibility of trauma, concentration difficulties, self-doubt, worry, indecisiveness, memory difficulties
  • Physical complaints: muscle tension, headaches, gastric distress, sleep and appetite changes, fatigue

Strategies for Coping

There is no single right way to cope. Just as different people experience different feelings from stress, they also handle it in different ways. It is important to focus on the positive ways of coping that work best for you.

Social support: Talking usually helps. Share your feelings with friends, family, a faculty member, your Community Adviser (if you live on-campus), clergy, or a counselor.

Physical self-care: Get regular exercise, eat regular and well-balanced meals, avoid excess alcohol and caffeine, and get sufficient sleep.

Faith: If it is helpful to you, pray, meditate, or go to church.

Relaxation techniques: Try deep breathing, muscle relaxation, visualization (imagining peaceful scenes), and/or listening to soothing music.

Realistic self-talk: While we can't always control what happens to us, we can always control what we say to ourselves. It's important to keep things in perspective. Talk to yourself in reasonable ways. Ask yourself "how likely is my fear?" Remind yourself that you have coped before during other challenging times. Don't just dwell on the negative but consciously look for things you can appreciate every day.

Controlling your immediate environment: Maintain your routines. Limit your exposure to upsetting news reports on television and in the media. If you start to worry, distract yourself by getting involved in some other activity.

Get involved: Whatever your political views, it can be helpful to feel like you are doing something. Find a way to become socially and politically involved (e.g., attend a meeting, make a contribution, join an organization, write a letter to the editor or to elected officials, donate blood).

Humor: Humor is a time-honored way to cope with stress. Watch light-hearted television shows and movies. Read a humorous book.

Respect and Tolerance for Differences

It is understandable that during times of high stress and uncertainty emotions run high. We may tend to see things in black or white terms, in other words, as right or wrong, moral or immoral. It is helpful to realize that international situations are often very complex and that well-intentioned and reasonable individuals may differ about both causes and solutions. Because divisiveness adds to stress, it is helpful to be respectful and tolerant of individuals from different cultures and/or with different points of view. To reduce one's sense of divisiveness, and thereby lower stress, we can search for commonalities that we all share in times such as these regardless of our political views or cultural backgrounds, e.g., concern for human life and desire for a peaceful world.