The Worst Part of Anxiety is the Waiting
Making it through that waiting can be eye-opening, and here’s why.
Can you remember the last time you were anxious about an upcoming task, situation, or event? Maybe it revolved around an important conversation with a friend, getting your blood drawn, or flying to another continent.
Though many of us would prefer not to admit it, we all experience these pregame jitters from time to time. The degree to which we experience them, however, varies from person to person, just as the exact means by which we experience them do.
However, no matter the specific event or level of anxiety that comes with it, all situations that fall into the anxiety-provoking category have one thing in common — they keep some outcome hidden from us until they play out in our lives.
For example, when thinking about our upcoming bloodwork appointment, we don’t know if we’ll faint during the process or if the doctors will examine our blood and find something they weren’t supposed to. And, most importantly, we don’t know how such uncertainties will resolve themselves until the appointment actually occurs.
Sure, this is all fairly common sense, but it behooves us to dig below the surface here, because simply saying, “This is an uncertain situation, and that’s why I’m anxious,” doesn’t do us all that much good in regard to walking back said fear. Or, to put it another way — if this is as far as our thinking goes, then we’re missing a piece of the puzzle.
Lead Time: Endless Opportunity for Worry
When we find ourselves waiting for an anxiety-provoking event to pass, we often think it’s the event itself that’s responsible for creating our fear. And while that is correct in some regards, it’s also incorrect in others. Here’s what I mean by that.
Sure, if we could simply snap our fingers and say, “That scary flight across the Atlantic is done, I’m in Europe already,” then, of course, our anxiety surrounding the situation would be gone. However, that situation doesn’t have to actually occur in order for us to stop feeling the associated fear.
For example, when I’m feeling nervous about an upcoming situation or event, I find that simply arriving at the event can sometimes mitigate my worries. That is, merely advancing through security at the airport and getting to my seat on the plane can make me feel loads better, even though I haven’t yet made it to my destination.
The reason for this is simple: once we arrive at the event we’ve been fearing, many of the what-ifs surrounding the situation fade away; there’s now far less time to fall down the rabbit hole of anxiety and blow our fears out of proportion.
The opposite of this is also true, however, and it’s the concept behind the title of this blog post. That is, when scary events are far out on the horizon, we have endless time to worry about them — to conjure up the worst possible outcomes and make them out to be monsters in our minds.
I’m sure you know what this feels like. As it pertains to our flight example, this might mean worrying about the experience of the pilot, the structural integrity of the plane, or whether or not we’ll have a panic attack in our seat.
Actually getting to the scene of our supposed fears can do wonders for us in regard to alleviating them, however. That is, more often than not, when we actually get to our seat, we realize we’re sitting on a fairly new plane, in the hands of a friendly in-flight crew — far from our what-if worries. Or, if that’s not the case, we at least realize we can calmly and quickly head for the exits — no questions asked.
Such an experience can be eye-opening, and here’s why.
When we spend hours or days worrying about a specific scenario, then arrive at that scenario unscathed, saying to ourselves, “See, this isn’t so bad,” we’re able to make the realization that our anticipatory worry doesn’t always serve us. In fact, most of the time, we see, it only adds unnecessary anguish to the process.
Such a realization can even lead to long-term psychological and behavioral change, as we cite, at a gut level, that the worst part of anxiety truly is the waiting, and that we no longer see the value of it or want to engage in it.
Of course, that’s not to say avoiding anxiety is simple, or just a matter of telling ourselves that what we’re facing is no big deal. In reality, I don’t think anything could be farther from the truth.
Instead, it’s just to say that what we put ourselves through, mentally, is often far worse than anything we’ll actually experience in real life. If we can realize this and get out ahead of it, then we can often give ourselves permission to stop repeating such unhelpful practices.
The Mind and the Present Moment
Though it probably comes as no surprise, our minds are creatures of the here and now. Thus, if we want to experience positive emotions, it’s in our best interest to stay present as often as possible.
Of course, doing so is never easy, however. At any given moment, there are countless distractions and stressors in our environment trying to pull us out of that presence. Such distractions can lead to all sorts of unwanted emotions, including our good friends — fear and anxiety.
The reason for this is relatively straightforward: our subconscious minds strive to operate in the present, regardless of whether our conscious minds are doing so. What I mean by that is, when our conscious minds zoom ahead to a future event, our subconscious minds respond as if that event is taking place right now.
This is exactly why we can get ourselves all riled up, or even give ourselves a panic attack, thinking about next week’s flight—one that hasn’t yet occurred, and might never, for that matter.
This also further explains why the worst part of anxiety is the waiting; since we’re not actually at the scary event just yet, and don’t have full evidence of what it will be like, our brains prepare us for any and all possibilities — including the worst ones — by pushing us to conjure them up in our minds.
And, since our subconscious minds, by default, treat most thoughts as if they’re present realities, they respond to the scary ones by releasing stress hormones, preparing us to either fight or flee the situation “at hand.”
However, as we get closer to the actual event in front of us, or possibly even start to come out on the other side of it, all those distant what-ifs, and the anxiety that comes with them, start to lose power. This is exactly why we often find ourselves saying things like, “See, that was easy,” later on.
Thus, if we want to mitigate the amount of fear we feel in advance of any scary situation, we have to remember that the mere presence of it doesn’t mean the worst outcome will occur when the actual situation comes to pass. In fact, and as you’ve probably experienced before, the opposite is actually more likely to happen.
So, the next time you find yourself getting discouraged about how anxious you are leading up to an important event, remind yourself that such a feeling is likely worse than anything you’ll actually experience when the situation gets here for real.
If done right, it will desensitize you, at least somewhat, to waiting for anxiety-provoking events in general, which will help keep you out of those deep, dark holes of anticipatory fear. And, with less fear in your heart, you may even find yourself arriving at those scary events ready and willing to see just where things may take you.
Thanks for reading! Want to learn more?
Then grab a copy of my book, Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety.* It covers many of the topics I discuss in my blog posts, as well as a few new, key frameworks for managing fear. Check it out if you’re looking to level-up your anxiety-alleviating skills.
Or, if you’re not yet ready to jump into the book, head on over to some of my previous articles on managing anxiety:
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