Breaking the Cycle: How Anticipatory Anxiety Sabotages Our Lives

"...and then every day I go to bed with all these negative thoughts in my head and I toss and turn for hours. This has been going on for weeks now. I really need a good night's sleep. Of course I'm always tired during the day. Every evening, I dread turning off the light. I know I won't be able to sleep again!“

It's a classic vicious cycle that my client describes. Sleep specialists call this psychophysiological or learned insomnia: After a few bad nights, an internal pressure to perform starts to arise ("I really have to sleep now!"), and the associated tension naturally makes you lie wide awake in bed - again. If this happens several times in a row, something builds up that psychologists call anticipatory anxiety - nicely illustrated in my client's story above. You expect the worst to happen for sure.

This anticipatory anxiety and the vicious cycles it creates can turn our lives into a nightmare in many moments, not just when we go to bed at night. Even something as enjoyable as flirting can become torture! For example, a good friend of mine (who would really like to fall in love again after being a widower for several years) keeps thinking: "I'm sure I'll never find anyone to fall in love with me again! I'm too old, I'm not attractive enough any longer, no woman would want me any more." (FYI: he just turned 60, so he really doesn't have one foot in the grave yet, and he really doesn't look like Catweazle either ...) Another client, who wants to return to work now after a long break to have children, and whose first job application was unsuccessful, is now absolutely convinced that she will never be employed again.

What do these situations (and many others) have in common? A psychological principle also known as self-fulfilling prophecy: The fear of a negative event can increase the likelihood that this event will actually occur. I'm sure you've already realized the mechanism from the example of my sleepless client. As for my love-starved friend, well, he's now embarking on his tentative dating attempts with the firm belief that he doesn't really stand a chance on the dating market with his bald head and lacking sixpack abs. Of course, his insecurity will not enhance his sex appeal, so there’s a good chance his beliefs will prove themselves true. And my job-seeking client thinking "Why bother writing any more resumes?“ - well, we can all imagine how that will work out.

The good news is that this principle can also be used in reverse! You may remember from other articles I have written on optimism that a hopeful attitude of expectation increases the chance of positive experiences. The trick is that it will shift our focus of perception and allow us to approach things more relaxed and with more confidence. Top athletes, by the way, have long used this principle, mentally visualizing themselves on the winner's podium in advance as part of their competition preparation.

Of course, I'm not arguing at all against hygiene rules, personal liability insurance, or other sensible precautions against the adversities of everyday life. But at the end of the day, you should realize that the slogan "be prepared" could also be completed with "for the good things in life to come!“ Sure, mindfulness and prudence are more advisable than recklessness - but anxiety is always counterproductive. To quote a saying from Islamic culture: "Trust in God and tie up your camel!" Not "or" or "but" but "and" - that's the right attitude!

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