This morning I stopped to think about what it is that actually makes me anxious. I realised that when I have an anxiety episode, it’s usually because I am anticipating something particular that might happen, or is almost certainly about to happen. Have you ever noticed that if you stand and wait for your toast to pop up from the toaster, it makes you jump when it happens? But if you forget it was in there and carry on with making your lunch, you hardly even notice when it pops up? The event of the toast popping up is not scary in itself. It’s the anticipation of it that puts you on edge, and makes you jump when it happens! I like to call this anticipatory anxiety or ‘The Toaster Effect’!
These are some of the situations in which I have experienced this
- When I am in a conversation with a group of people, and I am expecting someone to ask me a specific question (even if it is a completely benign question). Yesterday I was at a family gathering. We were in the first stages of conversation, catching up with the latest updates in everyone’s lives. A family member was asking my sister all about her job. I had been fine up until the point where I thought, ‘They will be asking me next’. I felt anxiety come on because I was anticipating being asked about how my music work is going, and other questions. They were not questions that would normally pose me any problems answering. It was just the anticipation of waiting for them to be asked that was making me anxious.
- When I am about to be drawn attention to. For example, when I am playing in a concert and it is getting near to the end, where they usually say ‘thank yous’ and sometimes present gifts to the performers. I sometimes find this part uncomfortable because of the attention being drawn to me. But the worst bit is almost always the anticipation that it is about to happen.
- When somebody made a comment or talked about a topic that made me feel emotional or has a particular significance to issues I am going through, and I don’t want to show any emotion about this topic. I anticipate crying and getting emotional, which leads me to feel anxious, even after the moment has passed.
So in situations like these, what can I do to make the anxiety go away?
I have to remind myself that I am only getting anxious about something that MIGHT happen, not something that is actually happening in the present moment. And even if that thing does happen, it will rarely happen the exact way I am playing it out in my mind. And even by the time it starts happening, the anxiety begins to melt away because the wait is over. The actual event is rarely as anxiety-inducing as the anticipation was. So it makes sense to try and find ways to dissipate that anticipatory anxiety since it only makes you suffer in moments that are actually harmless!
When I thought about situations where I have felt anticipatory anxiety, I realised that sometimes things turned out in a way that caused the anxiety to disappear before the anticipated event happened. Looking at the ways in which this happened, I saw three threads emerging. All of these could be applied to future situations as coping strategies, to make the anxiety disappear.
1. Sink into the present moment
The first to sink into the present moment and focus on what is happening right now, rather than allowing myself to think about the thing that I am anticipating.
For example, if I am in a rehearsal or concert, anxiously waiting to play whilst announcements are happening, I can go into my own little world and relax into the moment, rather than waiting alert with my hands at the piano.
Related post: Tips for Dealing with Pre-Performance Anxiety and Nerves
If I am in a concert worrying about being drawn attention to, I could focus only on the piece I am currently playing. During the gaps between pieces, I could focus only on setting up my music for the next piece, taking a drink of water, and other physical actions. Even just breathing! Anything to distract me from thinking about what might happen.
Going back to the toaster analogy, I could concentrate on preparing the rest of my lunch, rather than thinking about the toast that is about to pop up.
2. Deliberately bring forward the thing that I am anticipating
The second is to deliberately bring forward the thing that I am anticipating – either the thing itself or a similar thing. This way, the anticipation ends, and it’s over and done with before I get even more anxious.
For example, if I am anxious anticipating talking, I could start a new topic myself (or even the topic I was worrying about). By taking control I am breaking the anticipation. Or if I am waiting to play in rehearsals, I could turn down the volume (if it’s a digital piano) and play the first few notes as practice, and to bring forward the action of playing.
In the toaster situation, I could press the cancel button to bring the toast up a little early.
Related post: Neutralising Anxiety Triggers
3. Find or initiate a distraction
The third is to find or initiate a distraction. This can bring you into the moment and distract you from whatever is possibly about to happen. It can also bring you out of ‘stuck-ness’ and boost your confidence because if you can cope with whatever the distraction is, you are better set up to cope with the original event if or when it occurs. The distraction can also change the course of where things are going so that the thing you were anticipating doesn’t happen at all.
An example of this happened in the family gathering I mentioned earlier. I was distracted by my aunt’s cat who walked into the room. I forgot my anxiety for a moment as I was focused on the cat, and I ended up speaking out in conversation about her. By doing the same action that I was worrying about (talking) but on a different topic to the one I was anticipating, my anxiety was gone. The course of the conversation also changed and I never was asked about my music work! Likewise, I could distract myself from my toast by chatting to a family member, or by putting on some loud music to mask the sound of the toast popping up.
I could use the distraction method in rehearsal situations too – if I am anxiously waiting to play, I could make eye contact with someone and smile or talk if the situation allows.
Some of these strategies will suit certain situations better than others, but most of the time you could use any one of them. For the three situations I gave as examples above, here are some different ways I could have coped with each:
In a conversation, anticipating being asked questions:
- Focus fully on the current conversation topic.
- Bring up the topic I am anticipating being asked about.
- Change the subject, or suggest an activity.
In a concert, anticipating being drawn attention to:
- Focus fully on the music I am playing.
- Make eye contact with the audience and other performers, engage and connect with people so that some attention is already on me.
- Think about a topic that makes me feel happy and positive.
When somebody said something that made me feel emotional:
- Leave it in the past and focus fully on what is happening now.
- Talk or explain about the thing that makes me emotional.
- Bring up a topic that makes me feel happy and stable.
- Suggest an activity that will take my mind off it.
I write guides like this partly to help myself, as I can read back over the coping strategies that I have learned, and get better at applying them. But I hope that anyone reading this, and my other posts about anxiety, will find them helpful as well!