Anticipatory anxiety tends to occur when one thinks about what may happen in a particular setting or situation (that hasn’t happened yet), with usually a negative outcome, which can then cause great anxiety. For example, a child may think that there is no way they will pass this upcoming test and it is going to be the worst day of their life. Then, cue the physical symptoms and behavioral issues (e.g. refusing to go to school).
Most often, the anxiety leading up to the event is significantly worse than during the actual event. Even so, this is a hard concept for children (and adults!) to wrap their heads around. I love using metaphors to help children (and adults!) understand these concepts and use them to challenge those catastrophic thoughts.
Here is one of my favorites:
Harry Potter is in his 4th year at Hogwarts. Someone puts his name into the goblet of fire and he has to participate in challenges that he is not deemed old enough for. Harry has two weeks until the first task, which is an eternity when anticipatory anxiety presents itself! Harry “felt as though it [the first task] were crouching ahead of him like some horrific monster...He had never suffered nerves like these...Harry was finding it hard to think about the future at all. He felt as though his whole life had been leading up to and would finish with the first task”.
Over the next two weeks, Harry is “feeling too queasy to eat”; his “brain filled with a sort of blank buzzing, which didn’t seem to allow room for concentration”; he “barely slept that night”; “he seriously considered for the first time ever just running away from Hogwarts”; “he finished his bacon with difficulty (his throat wasn’t working too well)”; “Harry felt oddly separate from everyone around him”; “it was a state of nervousness so advanced that he wondered whether he mightn’t just lose his head”; “Harry felt separate from the crowd as though they were a different species”; “horrible pictures formed in Harry’s mind”; he was “very aware of the way his heart was pumping fast and his fingers tingling with fear…..yet at the same time he seemed to be outside himself”; “he stood up, noticing dimly that his legs seemed to be made of marshmallow”; “the panic rising into a crescendo inside him”; “he was everything in front of him as though it was a very highly colored dream”.......
Cue the actual event that he has been dreading. Harry now has to go head-to-head with the Hungarian Horntail dragon. Harry has spent two weeks in a panic, not eating, not sleeping, feeling disconnected from the world, not being able to concentrate, and now…..
“He swung his leg over the broom and kicked off from the ground. And a second later, something miraculous happened…….he realized that he had left not only the gound behind, but also his fear…...his heart lighter than it had been in weeks”.
Harry faced the Hungarian Horntail and it was not even remotely as bad as he thought it would be! In fact, he knew exactly what to do and his body kicked right into action.
This story is a great metaphor for children to help them understand how thinking about it ahead of time is usually way worse than the actual event. Talk to children about what Harry could have tried to challenge the thoughts and panic that he endured for those two weeks. Maybe Harry could have practiced positive self talk, deep breathing or used exercise to clear his mind. The possibilities are endless and children will come up with amazing ways to help Harry. Then, they can finally understand how those same ideas could help them, too.
Rowling, J. K., author. (2002). Harry Potter and the goblet of fire. New York :Scholastic.