Overcoming Anticipatory Anxiety by Sally M. Winston and Martin N. Seif uses a cognitive behaviour therapy approach to help readers deal with chronic indecisiveness, avoidance, and catastrophic thinking.
The book begins by explaining what anticipatory anxiety is—the expectation of distress and the push towards avoidance that occurs before you encounter the situation you fear in real life. The authors refer to it as the “third layer” of fear—it’s being afraid of being afraid of being afraid. They explain that sometimes people will refer to this as “free-floating anxiety” when they’re not actually aware of what they’re anticipating.
The book describes how anticipatory anxiety shows up in anxiety disorders and OCD, as well as other conditions like PTSD, mood disorders, and substance use disorders. In generalized anxiety disorder, anticipatory anxiety is the initial what if, which is then followed by thoughts to try to make that anticipatory anxiety go away; however, those subsequent thoughts actually end up reinforcing the anxiety. In OCD, anticipatory anxiety drives the performance of compulsive behaviours. In anxiety disorders and OCD, anticipatory anxiety often sticks around the longest during people’s recovery journeys.
One of the topics covered is chronic indecisiveness, which is presented as a behaviour that can be changed rather than a personality trait. There’s a not-so-fun mental loop where people have anticipatory anxiety so they try to avoid making decisions (the book describes strategies like procrastination and convenient forgetting), but indecision increases anticipatory anxiety. The book explores several issues that can feed into indecisiveness, like FOMO, feeling the need to make the best/right choice, fear of regret, and perfectionism.
There’s a chapter devoted to how anxiety works in our minds and bodies. The authors explain how the amygdala works and why it sends out a lot of false alarms (way back in the day, that would have helped save you from getting eaten). There are also personality traits that people can be genetically predisposed to that make anxiety more of an issue. Because of the way the brain is set up, the feelings you get are basically the same when you’re actually in danger vs. when you’re anxious. I thought the authors did a really good job of explaining this in a way that validated why people feel the way they feel but at the same time giving a solid alternative way of evaluating those feelings.
The book also explores avoidance, pointing out that this removes the possibility of new learning to teach your brain that your catastrophizing isn’t accurate. Also, the more effort you put into trying to remove unwanted thoughts and feelings, the more they stick around.
“Surrender and commit” is presented as the antidote to avoidance. This includes “attending to what is instead of what if,” disentangling yourself from your thinking, and committing to proceeding with either action or choice. I quite liked this line: “problems related to too much thinking are not solved with more thinking.”
The book closes with a chapter on troubleshooting and a chapter that explores what recovery might look like (and what it won’t look like).
I liked this book. I thought the explanations were really effective at conveying why our minds work the way they do. Another thing I liked was that the authors seemed very realistic. There were no flowery promises about strategies that will have you feeling better lickety-split. CBT-based books sometimes annoy me by being overly certain, but this book didn’t have that feel to it. The focus on anticipatory anxiety isn’t something I’ve encountered in other books on anxiety that I’ve read. Overall, I thought it was quite well done.
Overcoming Anticipatory Anxiety is available on Amazon (affiliate link).
I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.