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Anticipatory stress

What is anticipatory stress? 

Anticipatory stress is experiencing an increased stress response in anticipation of a difficult or unpredictable situation. There are three stages of anticipatory stress: 

  1. Becoming aware of a potential threat/challenge,

  2. Evaluating whether we have the resources to meet the potential threat/challenge or if there is potential for us to be overwhelmed and,

  3. The physical and emotional experience of stress. 

What can anticipatory stress look like? 

  • Increased heart rate
  • Feeling tense and on edge
  • Racing thoughts
  • Rapid breathing or difficulty getting a full breath 
  • Increased perspiration
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling irritable 
  • Finding it difficult to concentrate

How can you prevent anticipatory stress? 

The first thing to know is that not all anticipatory stress is bad. Some research indicates that when people have increased anticipatory stress, they also recover more quickly after the stressful event has happened. This may indicate that while it doesn’t feel pleasant, experiencing some anticipatory stress might be protective for us and helpful for us in coping with stressful events in the long run. In fact, in general,  manageable levels of moderate life stress seems to have a positive impact on how humans function at a physiological level. However, ongoing, chronic stress can have a profoundly negative effect on our health and our overall functioning and well being. Therefore if the anticipatory stress you are experiencing feels unmanageable, it is important to address. In order to reduce anticipatory stress some helpful strategies can be: 

Reframe and reappraise.

Research indicates that when we can have a more positive appraisal of an oncoming stressful event, both that the stressful event will be less negative than we think and confidence that we will have the resources to meet it, our stress response is reduced.

Use compassionate and positive self-talk when thinking about an event and about whether you can manage it.

Tell yourself things like:  “I have survived many things, I will survive this too”, “This is going to be hard, but I know I can face this challenge”. It may seem silly but research indicates that having self compassion and attempting to talk to yourself in a positive way can have real impacts on our stress levels. 

Take care of yourself.

People who exercise regularly, eat nutritious meals, get enough sleep, have ways to relax and have fun, and have positive relationships with others can more effectively cope with stress.

Use biofeedback.

Biofeedback can be a helpful tool for managing stress and you can do it even without a smartwatch or a fancy device. Find your pulse with your fingers and pay attention to the beats per minute. Or pay attention to your breathing and count your breaths. Use a breathing and visualization technique like the box breath technique. 

  • Breathe for 4 seconds counting slowly. 

  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds counting slowly.

  • Let the breath out for 4 seconds counting slowly. 

  • After you’ve done this a few times, go back to your pulse and your breathing and compare where your numbers are now to where they were before. 

Be careful who you hang around with.

Research indicates that spending time with someone who is struggling with depression can increase our own risk of depression simply because it is easy to get into a negative cycle of conversation. For example, focusing on what can go wrong, our personal failures in a situation, etc. Therefore, if you’re feeling an increased sense of stress, it may be important to be thoughtful about who you’re spending your time with in order to be protective of your wellbeing. 

What if my anticipatory stress feels unmanageable? 

The first thing to know is that what you’re feeling is normal; it is a normal response to an abnormal situation. After that, a great next step is to talk to a healthcare provider who can talk with you about your concerns and what the next steps might be. If you’re unsure how to access a healthcare provider, check out this resource from Minnesota Department of Health and Human Resources

Also the Minnesota Department of Agriculture provides several free resources for farmers and people living in rural areas including a helpline and rural mental health specialists, and mobile crisis teams. 

Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline 

Phone: 833-600-2670 or  Text: FARMSTRESS to 898211
Email: farmstress@state.mn.us

Check out their resources and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You deserve it. 

Authors: Emily Becher, Applied Research and Evaluation specialist and Emily Krekelberg, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2022

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