ANTICIPATORY STRESS (INSOMNIA, PUBLIC SPEAKING, ETC.)
Do you have insomnia?
If so, I can already guess that you spend so much energy dreading the possibility that you’ll wake up at night, that you have trouble even going to sleep.
Or you wake up at night to a barrage of “oh god, you should be asleep, now you’ll never be able to go to sleep, you’re going to be so screwed tomorrow” thoughts that end up waking you up even more.
I’m not psychic. It’s just predictable. Because it’s an example of a phenomenon that most of us have some experience with, whether we struggle with insomnia or not: Anticipatory stress.
Anticipatory stress is the stress we feel in anticipation of something we’ve labelled “difficult” or “unpleasant” or “bad.”
It’s common with insomnia, and it can also show up around other things, from public speaking (where we anticipate that we’ll feel anxious or embarrassed), to social anxiety (where we anticipate feeling awkward or ashamed), to having a difficult conversation with a boss (where we anticipate feeling nervous or frustrated)…basically anything you’re anticipating to be uncomfortable in the future.
It’s also the main reason that our experience of these events is so painful.
I know, I know: Most of us think our pain stems from the thing we are dreading – the lack of sleep, or the public speaking, or the difficult conversation.
But most of our suffering actually comes from what we are making these things mean. The stress we are anticipating feeling.
Thankfully, there are three steps you can take today to help feel better, no matter WHAT you are dreading.
The first step is to ACCEPT that the thing you are anticipating will happen.
Accept that you WILL wake up and not be able to go back to sleep.
Accept that you WILL feel anxious and embarrassed when speaking in front of other people.
One of the biggest mistakes we make when dealing with anticipatory stress is to start resisting it. By not wanting it to happen, we create anxiety around whether it will happen.
That’s why I recommend you COUNT on it happening. This will remove the uncertainty of “this may or may not happen,” which actually gives your brain a rest. Brains hate uncertainty even more than they hate distasteful outcomes.
Once you just accept it will happen, then we can look at what you’re making that anticipation MEAN.
With insomnia, there’s often a lot of mental drama about how the next day will pan out if you aren’t able to sleep.
Thoughts like “I’ll be so tired, I won’t be able to function, I’m going to be even MORE stressed out, I’m going to feel terrible,” all make you feel stressed out and terrible NOW.
What’s more, thinking those things will make you MORE LIKELY to experience them in the future.
If you tell yourself that when you feel physical symptoms of fatigue, it is stressful and awful and makes you bad at your job, you know what will happen the moment you feel those sensations in the future?
Your brain will immediately jump-start the “feel stressed and do bad at my job” program.
Your brain will literally create what you’ve told it will happen.
It will be scanning for evidence that proves this true and filtering out evidence that contradicts it, no matter how much sleep you get.
Here’s where the second step comes in: once you accept that what you fear will come to pass, you can decide ahead of time what story to tell yourself about it.
You can continue practicing your default story of “if I don’t get enough sleep, my day will be ruined and I’ll feel miserable,” knowing that story will make you MORE LIKELY to feel miserable.
Or you can shift that to something more neutral, like “I’m awake right now, and that’s ok. Even if I don’t fall back asleep I will be fine. I’ve gotten by on this much sleep before.”
Notice how much calmer and more relaxed you will feel if you practice these thoughts.
You may not always get to choose when or for how long you wake up, but you can always think about that reality in a way that serves you.
Once you come up with a thought to practice the next time the thing you are anticipating comes to pass, you can move to the third step in this process: doing prep work.
Consider this like a mental rehearsal.
Just like actors practice a scene before they step out in front of an audience, I want you to practice your new thoughts ahead of time.
Sure, you can try practicing your new thoughts for the first time when you wake up at 3 a.m., or when you step up onto a stage, or when you broach a difficult topic with your boss or romantic partner.
But it will be infinitely more effective if you rehearse them AHEAD of time.
So if you struggle with insomnia, set aside time throughout the day to practice the thought: “Even if I don’t get a ton of sleep tonight, I will be totally fine tomorrow.”
If you’re afraid of public speaking, practice the thought “Even though I may be nervous on stage, I can still connect effectively with my audience.” Even when you don’t have a public speaking engagement scheduled!
The more you practice ahead of time, the more unconscious the thought will become.
Which means: The more effective it will be when you actually DO have insomnia, or are about to give a speech.
This will reduce the intensity of the problem over time, and as that happens, you can move onto step four in this process: Working your way up the thought ladder.
This simply means that once you fully believe a thought you’re practicing, you can progress to new, more positive thoughts like “I’m going to sleep really well tonight, and even if I wake up I’m going to fall back asleep pretty quickly,” or “I’m not going to be too nervous when I give this speech, I know exactly what I want to say and even if I feel nervous at the beginning it will go away quickly.”
Eventually, you will work all the way up to thoughts like “I sleep through the night and it feels great” and “I love getting on stage to speak,” and you will believe these thoughts fully.
But you can’t just skip to this final step. This process is cumulative, and if you jump right to a new thought that doesn’t feel believable to you, you will go right back into resisting your current reality.
Remember, it only takes four steps to set yourself free:
Step one: Accept that the emotion you fear is going to happen.
Step two: Look at what you’re making it MEAN that you will feel or experience this thing, and decide on purpose what you can believe instead that’s less dramatic and catastrophizing.
Step three: Practice that thought not just when it happens, but ahead of time.
Step four: Move your way up the thought ladder believing less negative and more positive thoughts about what it means if the emotion or experience happens, or even that it may not happen at all.
With anticipatory stress, like with anything else, our drama and resistance to it are what make it so terrible. Most of our suffering comes from RESISTANCE, not the thing itself. Follow these steps, and you’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll feel.