Is there an upcoming social event that you’re feeling anxious about? What about a job interview? Or perhaps it’s a long drive or a trip to the doctor’s office. Needless to say, the possibilities of overwhelming situations are endless. It can be difficult coping ahead, but you can take 5 steps to prepare for overwhelming situations. But whatever the worry, we can all relate to the feeling of anticipatory anxiety. We quickly jump to the worst-case scenario, focus on the million things that could go wrong, and ruminate about the limitless “what ifs” and uncertainties that we have no control over in the first place.

Whether it’s a new experience or something we’ve been through countless times, these go-to tactics are not as helpful as we think; they only create a false sense of control. Then when it actually comes time for the stressful event, we’re likely to choose coping mechanisms that are unhealthy or reinforce our anxiety. For example, you might isolate or leave that social event early if you start to experience panic symptoms. Or you might rush through that job interview as fast as you possibly can and resort to numbing behaviors afterward. 

5 Steps For Coping Ahead

Rather than spiraling in our anticipatory anxiety and pushing through the stressful situation ineffectively, we can instead rehearse a plan ahead of time to better prepare for the nerve-wracking scenario. Research shows that imagining ourselves doing something actually makes us more likely to do it! Think about it like giving a presentation. If you create an outline and rehearse the talking points beforehand, you are more likely to deliver your message successfully. Follow these coping ahead 5 steps to prepare for overwhelming situations next time your anticipatory anxiety is getting to you!

1.     Describe the Overwhelming situation

Identify what situation or event you’re feeling anxious about and the feared outcome you’re predicting. Name the thoughts and emotions you are likely to experience in the moment that could prevent you from responding in a skillful way. For example, you expect to feel panicky and your typical reaction is to escape. Or maybe you anticipate experiencing anger which would usually lead you to raise your voice.

2.     Choose what coping skills you want to use

What alternative and healthy skills do you want to use to cope during a stressful event? This is your time to implement the coping skills you’ve learned in therapy. Remember to be specific here! For example, select a specific mindfulness exercise (i.e. 4×4 breathing) rather than saying “I will practice mindfulness”. Why is this so important? Your emotion mind will be activated during the stressful event and it’s very difficult to access skills from our wise mind when we’re emotionally escalated.  

3.     Imagine the situation 

Now that you’ve identified the stressful situation, your expected reactions in the moment, and your desired coping skills, close your eyes and picture the situation in your mind as clearly as possible. The goal is to actively picture yourself in the situation rather than watching it play out as a bystander. Where are you and what are you doing? Who are you with? What kind of conversation is happening? What thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations are you experiencing? What does it look like for you to implement the coping skills that you chose earlier? 

4.     Practice relaxation after rehearsing

Believe it or not, even mentally putting yourself in a stressful situation can take a toll on your body and mind. Be kind to yourself and do something to ground and re-center after you’ve completed the mental rehearsal. Listen to music, take some deep breaths, or choose something else that relaxes you. Don’t judge yourself for feeling activated! Remember that your emotions are valid. 

5.     Follow through! 

Now that the situation is actually here, it’s time to implement the cope ahead plan that you rehearsed! Be mindful of thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions that show up for you throughout the experience. And when it’s all said and done, take some time to reflect on what went well, what didn’t go well, and how to better prepare for next time.

This article was written by Jessie Buck, LCPC

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