If thinking about the next day turns you into a puddle of stress the second your head hits the pillow, you’re probably experiencing anticipatory anxiety. In some cases, anticipatory anxiety is normal, but if you’re noticing it creep up night after night, you might want to learn what prevention tips can fit in your sleep arsenal.
“Anticipatory anxiety is when feelings of fear or excitement manifest before an upcoming event,” says Kimberly Fenn, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Sleep and Learning Lab at Michigan State University. “It’s most often discussed in terms of high-pressure events (a job interview), but it can also occur in anticipation of positive events (a wedding).”
Whether the anticipation is excitement or dread, the stimulating chemicals that flood the body and keep your mind from switching off at bedtime are the same. However, excitement might be easier to sit with than dread, which is more likely to lead to racing thoughts. Keep reading to learn why anticipatory anxiety happens and how to prevent it from taking up your sleep time.
What is the psychology behind anticipatory anxiety?
The brain is wired to anticipate. It takes information from the past and present — whether it’s personal experience or what you’ve read about — to predict the future, from how we should respond to what to expect.
If you perceive the stress of a big day, decision, or deadline as higher than your capacity to adapt, you’ll likely experience an increased stress response — and the resulting negative effects on sleep quality and quantity. When the brain is unable to create and trust those expectations, the result is anticipatory anxiety. And when it comes at night, you end up awake because your brain believes there are unknowns you need to prepare for, stat, and that anticipating what they are may protect you.
Situations that provoke anticipatory anxiety commonly include:
- social occasions such as first dates, parties, and work events
- professional situations like work presentations, performance evaluations, and project deadlines
- vacation and travel, from worry about missing flights to sticking to schedules
- doctors' appointments and health results
But often, the situation itself is not really the issue. “The perception of stress is critically important, and may be more important than the stressor itself,” Fenn says.
Factors that cause anticipatory anxiety are:
- uncertainty and unpredictability
- previous unresolved trauma
- situations or environments that had negative outcomes in the past
People who are prone to intrusive thoughts may also feel more intense anxiety. Why? Because intrusive thoughts bring unwanted emotions and fears into the picture.
These factors can really throw a wrench into your brain’s ability to accurately predict and calm your fight-or-flight system. If you’re unable to reel back your anticipatory anxiety, it could become restless sleep and make tomorrow more difficult.
7 ways to stop worrying about the future and get more sleep
These tips fall into two camps: those that help make sleep more likely so you can turn the lights out on racing thoughts, and those that help nip anxiety in the bud before it can even begin to interfere with sleep.
1. Sleep with a weighted blanket
Not only does research suggest that weighted blankets reduce insomnia severity, but one study of 120 patients also found that weighted blankets can help reduce anxiety symptoms during the day and increase activity levels. Solve your problems via human burrito? Yes.
Although scientists have yet to nail down exactly why, it’s thought that the pressure of weighted blankets mimics the warm-and-fuzzies of being taken care of. And that encourages the rest-and-digest response to switch on.
2. Interrupt your thoughts with relaxation and meditation
Distract your mind from what’s keeping it busy. “This can be accomplished by refocusing your mind on the physical aspects of your own body, such as breathing and physical sensations,” says Dr. Amer Khan, a sleep specialist and neurologist, and founder of Sehatu Sleep in California. Switching to a different activity can help mitigate the effects of the excitatory neurochemicals keeping you awake.
Try box breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and counting your breaths backward from a super-high number. These strategies all offer up a one-two punch of interrupting your anxiety-fueled thoughts and downgrading the physiological reaction.
3. Write down all your worries and make it tomorrow’s problem
By journaling a to-do list, you may be able to interrupt intrusive thoughts by sorting through what’s a realistic fear and what isn’t. For realistic fears, you can create an action plan. Having a plan of action is known to help reduce anxiety, pre-sleep stress, and rumination.
“If someone is worried about forgetting a key point in an upcoming presentation, for instance, I recommend they write this (and any other concerns) down before going to bed” as a way to unburden the mind, Fenn says.
Planning ahead works for future events and situations. But if you try to problem solve a past problem that’s out of your control, it may actually lead to more anxiety. Remember to keep your solutions focused on controllable factors and situations.
4. Talk your feelings out with someone
Talk therapy has been shown to drastically improve clinical anxiety. If you have a tele-therapist, this may be the time to break the “no screens” rule so you can talk your anxiety away. You can also reach out to someone in your support system and let them know you need reassurance, a listener, or both.
“By verbalizing your fears, you can transfer some of that anxiety (metaphorically) to that person,” says Fenn.
But be picky about who you have a heart-to-heart with, she says. “It’s extremely important that you not talk to someone who may be critical of you or who you feel might minimize your feelings, as this can obviously have the opposite effect and worsen your anticipatory anxiety.”
5. Consider taking the next day off
When you’re tossing and turning to the point where you might be worse off the next day, you may want to consider canceling plans and taking a day off for self-care. Life happens, so rather than spiraling your way toward burnout, time off may be in order.
Knowing that you have more time to prepare for an event or presentation could be the positive break you need. By doing so, it allows your brain to relax while you recoup the energy you need to take action and feel confident.
However, this option isn’t realistic for everyone, depending on your work environment or deadlines. If taking a day off isn’t in the cards, you may want to strategize and revisit your bedtime routine so that your body learns to anticipate sleep.
6. Engage in a relaxing activity before bed
The body responds strongly to routines. By establishing a defined nightly ritual before bed, your brain can start to associate this ritual as a precursor to sleep.
Find what activities soothe you, whether it’s reading or yoga, and incorporate them before bed. “Your body will start to relax during this routine,” says Fenn. “Then, when you’re experiencing anticipatory anxiety, the routine itself will help to relax you.”
Try to avoid relaxing activities that involve electronic devices. Playing puzzles on a screen may be relaxing, but the blue light from the devices can delay melatonin production, making you sleepier later.
7. Stick with the same bedtime and wake-up time
“Being diligent about your sleep pattern leading up to the big day is critical,” says Fenn. “If you keep a consistent sleep time and wake time, your body becomes entrained on these times.”
Have a big event on the horizon? Aim to get sufficient sleep for at least a week prior to the important night, and avoid napping during that week, too. This encourages your body to rest rather than ruminate.
Know when to practice emotional regulation vs. problem-solving
You don’t have to do the same thing every night. What you do to cope can and should depend on the big day itself. Think about what outcome you’re hoping for and what you can control to help yourself get closer to it.
For situations you can’t control, stick with emotional regulation
If you’re waiting for an event you have no control over, such as test results or a promotion notice, research suggests focusing on emotion regulation over problem-focused coping. Emotion regulation involves letting your feelings be. “It’s all about training your mind to respond calmly to any situation, good or bad,” says Khan.
For situations you can control, try problem-solving
When anticipatory anxiety is attached to moments you have some control over, problem-focused coping can help.
“In cases like these, blocking some time off in advance of the event might be beneficial for reducing anxiety,” says Fenn. That extra time may help you cover an action plan for unexpected technical or situational difficulties. In other words, if you have the capability to address something that might make you anxious, it may help to do that and get it out of the way (and out of your head).
Symptoms of anticipatory anxiety to watch for
Anticipatory anxiety is not always a “night before” type of fear. People who do not manage their anxiety levels or have not practiced breaking the cycle of intrusive thoughts could experience prolonged fight-or-flight.
“This results in a number of physiological changes, including an increase in stress hormone production,” says Fenn. The uptick in cortisol and adrenaline triggers your heart to beat faster, your muscles to tense, and your mind to race.
Other physical symptoms may follow, including:
- acid reflux or heartburn
- shortness of breath or breath-holding
The lack of sleep can also make these symptoms, and your anxiety, worse. In essence, the body could eventually struggle to recognize when it’s time to sleep — causing you to slip into an ongoing cycle of sleep disruption and anxiety. If this is common for you, then prioritizing sleep hygiene is all the more important.
When to talk to a professional
If you find yourself becoming withdrawn or avoidant of situations that cause you anxiety, it may be worth talking to your doctor or a mental health specialist. They can help you build more productive coping strategies and unburden the mental load of your worrisome thoughts and feelings.
Use sleep hygiene to remind your body that sleep is time for rest
When you’re experiencing anticipatory anxiety, your body thinks it’s time for planning and action, not rest. “In order for the mind to feel calm enough to switch over to sleep mode, it needs to feel, consciously or unconsciously, that everything needing your attention can wait until the next morning for your response,” says Khan.
Poor sleep hygiene is also associated with higher anxiety levels, according to research. It could be a good idea to skip the caffeine and alcohol on nights when you need full rest. Also avoid activities in bed, even if they seem relaxing, so your brain doesn’t associate your bed as a place for rumination.
And here’s a bonus tip: Practice being flexible and accepting outcomes that don’t align with your expectations. Research shows that how flexible you are with coping in anticipation may predict how flexible you are in handling the big event itself. A small start? Try “silver lining” thinking.
What are you looking forward to tomorrow? Now that’s something to sleep on.