Caregiving is a journey filled with complex emotions and experiences, one of which is anticipatory anxiety. It can plague those who care for their spouses with serious illnesses, leaving them in a constant state of worry about the future and what it holds. It’s like bleeding before you’re cut–a fear of pain that hasn’t happened yet but is expected to come.
We are all very familiar with stress. It is part of modern life. But when caregiver stress turns into excessive worry about something before it happens, it becomes anticipatory anxiety, which can be dangerous if not addressed. So, keep reading for strategies and insights on how to mitigate these feelings and approach caregiving with a sense of resilience and calmness.
What is Anticipatory Anxiety?
It happens when we start anticipating what might happen and what might go wrong. When we anxiously predict that we won’t be able to handle the addition of caring for our spouse after the upcoming surgery or taking on tasks he won’t be able to perform. When we worry about the test results. When we’re afraid we won’t be able to handle seeing him so sick.
All these thoughts and emotions come when we anticipate what is to come. We stress before we are actually under stress! This is the crazy way our brain works. By worrying about the future, we bring stress into our present. This stress can impact our work, our relationships, and our sleep. Fortunately, overcoming anticipatory anxiety and reducing caregiver stress is possible!
How Anticipatory Anxiety Might Show Up in Your Life as a Spousal Caregiver
Anticipatory anxiety in spousal caregivers can manifest in several ways. Here are some signs to look out for in yourself or someone you know who is caregiving for a partner:
- Feeling on edge, restless, or keyed up: This is a common symptom of anticipatory anxiety, where you constantly feel tense and unable to relax.
- Trouble concentrating: You may find it challenging to focus on tasks due to your preoccupation with worries about the future.
- Physiological symptoms: These can include trembling, edginess, a racing heart, sweating, and tremors.
- Insomnia and headaches: The stress and worry associated with anticipatory grief anxiety can lead to sleep disturbances and physical discomfort like headaches.
- Anger and irritability: You might exhibit mood swings, showing irritability and anger, as you grapple with your feelings of anticipatory grief anxiety.
- Fixating on worst-case scenarios: You may ruminate on worst-case outcomes, leading to increased stress and worry.
- Difficulty saying goodbye or fear of separation: This could manifest as a fear of bad outcomes upon separation from your spouse, which can lead to emotional outbursts.
It’s important to remember that these signs can vary from person to person and do not necessarily indicate a problem unless they persist or cause significant distress. If you can relate to the above symptoms, keep reading to learn how to alleviate them and move past living in constant fear and worry.
Overcoming Anticipatory Anxiety Before It Turns Into Caregiver Stress Burnout
While we may think we are worried about the surgery, the test results, or the expectations of us, what we are actually worried about is how we will feel when those things happen. We anticipate feeling scared, devastated, overwhelmed. It is the feeling we are afraid of having.
Thoughts Cause Feelings, Not Test Results
The world out there does not determine how we feel. It is our thoughts that cause our feelings. Our thoughts about the surgery or the test results. Our thoughts about what happened will cause us to feel scared, devastated, or overwhelmed. Not the event itself. And that is a good thing because we can choose our thoughts!
Why Does Our Brain Do This?
It’s a survival mechanism. Our brain is wired to look for danger. To do that, it needs to anticipate where that danger will come. So, our brain tries to predict what will happen. It will often repeat the scenario so we don’t forget it. It’s trying to be helpful and keep us safe.
What Do We Do About It?
Often, when we are stressing in advance, we are convinced we know what will happen. What we think is going to happen feels absolutely true, even though it hasn’t happened yet. It’s kind of crazy when you think about it!
I find it helpful to remind myself that what I’m anticipating is just my brain trying to protect and keep me safe. Thinking about it that way helps me to have compassion for myself and my primitive brain. It’s only trying to help.
7 Ways to Calm Your Brain and Stop Stressing in Advance
The first step to overcoming anticipatory anxiety is understanding why it’s happening (because of your thoughts!). Next, try one (or all) of these seven practices to support your brain.
1. Practice Mindfulness
Engaging in mindfulness exercises can help you stay grounded in the present moment and reduce worries about the future. This might involve deep breathing, yoga, or simply focusing on your senses and surroundings.
2. Create a Worry Schedule
It might sound strange, but setting aside a specific time each day to worry can help contain anxiety. During this time, allow yourself to think about your worries. When the time is up, move on to other activities.
3. Engage in Physical Activity
Movement is a great way to manage anxiety. It releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters. It can also help distract you from anxious thoughts.
4. Connect with Others
Reach out to friends, family, or support groups. Sharing your feelings can provide a sense of relief and make you feel less alone in your caregiving journey.
5. Use Relaxation Techniques
Techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery can help reduce symptoms of anticipatory anxiety. You can find many free resources online or consider working with a professional.
6. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
Eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and limiting caffeine and alcohol can all contribute to better mental health. These factors can help regulate your mood and keep anxiety at bay.
7. Consider Coaching for Caregivers
If you find overcoming anticipatory anxiety more challenging than expected, you’re not alone. And I would love to work with you to implement strategies and provide 1:1 support during your caregiving journey. Remember, it’s okay to ask for help and take care of yourself. Your well-being is just as important as the person you’re caring for.
Schedule a free 1-hour consultation with me so we can get to know each other and see if coaching is right for you.