Let me start by explaining that word salad title above. Anticipatory anxiety is produced when we forecast how we’ll feel if things don’t go as planned and then we feel anxious about it. Without anything bad happening at all!

As usual, best to describe with an example. I’ll use what happened last week on my trip home from visiting the in-laws in Louisiana.

Driving back to Dallas

For various reasons, instead of flying all the way to Shreveport, our family flies to Dallas and then drives a rental car four hours to my in-law’s house. Last Friday, our flight didn’t leave Dallas until 9 p.m. The good news with that is we didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn and drive four hours in the dark for a morning flight.

The bad news is that our flight didn’t arrive at John Wayne Airport until 10:20 p.m. And because of local laws negotiated long ago, flights can’t land at John Wayne past 11 p.m. Bottom line: If our flight was just a little late, we’d have to spend the night in Dallas and fly out the next morning.

Old, anxious me

Fine. So what does this have to do with anticipatory anxiety? Lots. Because the old me, before the spiritual work I’ve done these past several years, would have been wound tight as a drum over this scenario.

When? At least the day before. And definitely the morning of our trip and during the four-hour drive.

I would have been anxious about hitting a traffic jam that could have made us miss our flight. Anxious that there wouldn’t be a gas station near the airport where I could fill the rental car and therefore have to pay the $750 a gallon they all charge if you don’t bring it back full to the gills! And of course, anxious that our flight would be delayed, forcing us to lay up for the night in Dallas.

Not anxious anymore

But I didn’t get anxious about any of that. And I know, from the depths of my gut, that this is attributable to my spiritual work.

The best way to understand this dynamic is through this simple explanation, as played out in my head. The dialogue going on inside the old me would be,

“Man, we better make this flight. That is just going to suck if we have to schlep over to some depressing Airport Hilton for the night. Not to mention we wouldn’t get home until late morning tomorrow at the earliest. Better keep checking my phone to see if the flight is still on time…”

The dialogue inside the new, improved me was,

“Okay. We’re cruising along Interstate 20. It’s a beautiful day. Flight’s on time, so far. But if it gets delayed and we have to bunk in Dallas for the night, we’ll live. Maybe we can have a fun dinner somewhere.”

What’s the subtext behind these two dialogues? Simply put, old me felt anticipatory anxiety because he didn’t think he could handle any of the possible bad outcomes. Having to stay overnight in Dallas would throw him into a tailspin.

Recent me feels like I can handle anything. Stay in Dallas? Not ideal, but it’s not worth getting anxious over.

Being able to handle life

The regular meditation and mindfulness practices, coupled with working on letting go of David Gerken, has resulted in my being able to better handle the various challenges, both big and small, that life throws at me and every human being on planet Earth.

How do these practices help handle life better? I’ve written before about studies showing that meditation helps shrink our amygdalae, the almond shaped part of our limbic brain that is central to emotion regulation. I call it the Worry Wart part of our brain. [I go into more depth on that in this article from a few years back about when I got fired from The West Wing television show (link here).]

What are your experiences with this?

But again, this is about anticipatory anxiety and how ruinous it can be for so many. Does any of this ring a bell for you? Do you feel a pit in your stomach most days before going to work, even though you’re not at work yet? Do you feel terrible the whole week before traveling to see your mother-in-law?

The bottom line is that people feel anticipatory anxiety because they don’t think they can handle what might happen. And that can be crippling.

The good news, and the reason I wrote this article, is that solid, steady work on the spiritual path can go a long, long way toward alleviating this unnecessary anxiety.

The takeaway

So I hope you’ll look at this article as inspiration to get going on this stuff.

Because I’ve found that quieting the mind, working on being present with and accepting the reality of the present moment and letting go of our egoic selves makes us more compassionate, better at work, better in our relationships, less depressed and more focused.

Add alleviating anticipatory anxiety to that long list.