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If you are anxious about leaving the house or returning to the office after the pandemic, you could have anticipatory anxiety. Photo: Shutterstock

ExplainerAnticipatory anxiety: what it is and how to overcome your fears, as cases rise with return to the office and going out after the pandemic

  • Thinking about aspects of life that are within your control, such as health, work or relationships, will give you a sense of optimism, an expert says
  • Breathwork, meditation and journaling, as well as adopting a dog, have helped a fashion executive whose anxiety grew while stuck alone in lockdown

When Bao Anh Duong relocated from Hong Kong to her native Vietnam in June 2021 – during the Covid-19 pandemic – she had not anticipated having to spend life there in lockdown. She began to suffer emotionally as the isolation stretched on.

“The four-month lockdown was extreme,” says the 42-year-old Duong, a sportswear industry executive who had lived in Hong Kong for 12 years.

We couldn’t leave the house [in Ho Chi Minh City], not even to buy food or groceries. I’d always been an anxious person, but during the lockdown my anxiety worsened. I worried about not having enough food and didn’t know if the restrictions would tighten further as the pandemic raged on.
“Worse, I was alone and couldn’t see my family or friends. I felt trapped and didn’t know when I’d be able to leave my house or travel again. I was lonely and suffered from panic attacks.”
Journaling, breathwork and meditation have helped Bao Anh Duong get a handle on her anticipatory anxiety.

Although life is almost back to normal now in Vietnam, Duong says she still has “lingering anxiety”.

“I don’t know what will happen next. The past couple of years have taught me that life can change in a heartbeat, and it’s that uncertainty that I find a little unsettling.”

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Such emotions are not uncommon as businesses get back into full swing, countries prepare to welcome international travellers again, and employers prepare to end work-from-home policies and recall their staff to the office.

We may be anxious about different issues – a Covid recurrence, a future pandemic, having to return to work or be in crowded public spaces again – but there’s little doubt that many of us aren’t looking forward to adjusting to life in a post-pandemic world.

“Anticipatory anxiety is the fear that we feel before we do something that we’re afraid of, and it’s something that many people are experiencing right now,” says Minal Mahtani, a psychologist and the CEO and founder of OCD & Anxiety Support Hong Kong.
Psychologist Minal Mahtani says uncertainty about Covid-19 and its new variants, and being nervous about re-entering society, is natural.
The past two years were traumatic for everyone. When the pandemic started, we were all afraid; we knew little about the virus except that it was highly transmissible and potentially fatal. We learned how to keep ourselves safe, and most of us had to drastically alter our lifestyles to avoid getting sick.”
She adds that, although most of us have been vaccinated, we can’t guarantee total protection since the virus keeps mutating and new variants continue to emerge. It’s therefore natural that many of us are now anxious about letting our guard down and re-entering society.

We also don’t know what this “new normal” entails.

Nearly half of Hongkongers surveyed suffer ‘moderate to severe’ anxiety

The pandemic forced us to quickly develop coping skills to help us deal with the lockdowns and restrictions. Some of us lost our job or loved ones, and we had to adjust to those changes, too.

“But now, we’re afraid of relinquishing the mechanisms that helped us deal with our difficult emotions, because we don’t know what will happen if we do.”

People with anticipatory anxiety imagine the worst, Mahtani says. They tend to make negative predictions and worry excessively about an event, situation or person that needs to be faced in the future.

Anyone can experience anticipatory anxiety, but people with anxiety disorders are more prone to it.

It’s important to address anticipatory anxiety and keep it in check, otherwise it may escalate further and create even bigger problems, says Hong Kong-based psychologist Dr Adrian Low.

Adrian Low, Hong Kong-based psychologist, says anxiety could hold you back from interacting with others.

“Some people may increase their use of alcohol or drugs, believing that it will help them deal with their emotions, but alcohol and drugs can actually worsen anxiety.

“Being overly anxious may also hold you back from re-entering society and interacting with others again. This can lead to loneliness and cause feelings of isolation and even depression,” Low says.
“In addition, long-term, chronic anxiety has been associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, which includes coronary heart disease and stroke. And if you suffer from some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, like a cleaning compulsion, for instance, your anticipatory anxiety may worsen your condition.”

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So how can we adapt to life in the new, post-pandemic world?

Low recommends looking at the scientific data and facts to better understand the risks involved before you adjust your behaviour. No one can predict what will happen several months from now, but knowing the facts can help you make sense of any irrational fears.

Then, take small steps to overcome those fears. If you’re anxious about attending social events, try meeting a couple of friends outdoors, but take all the necessary precautions to protect yourself from Covid-19.

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“The worst thing you can do is avoid safe or relatively safe situations, because that reinforces the conditioned belief that something bad will happen to you. The more you avoid, the harder it’ll be to overcome them,” he explains.

When researching the facts, stick to credible and trustworthy news sources. Avoid reading sensational reports on social media, as these often contain false information which can heighten your anxiety.

Changing your perspective of this current reality can help dampen anticipatory anxiety.

Clinical hypnotherapist Sonia Samtani says it helps to ground yourself in the present by accepting the changes that are taking place.

“Look at it as the end of one era and the beginning of another,” says Sonia Samtani, a clinical hypnotherapist and the founder of All About You in Hong Kong.

“Who knew we’d have to give up ‘normal life’ and adjust to something new? But change is the only constant and we have to accept that life may never be the same again.

“To let go of something, in this case your pre-Covid life, you have to know what you’re replacing it with. It helps to ground yourself in the present by accepting the changes that are taking place and then setting goals and intentions for the future.

How to stay motivated and keep striving to reach your goals

“When planning your goals, think about those aspects of life that are within your control, such as your health, work or relationship. This will give you a sense of optimism and make it easier to move forward.”

Not everyone will be able to move forward at the same time or pace, so be patient with yourself and others, and don’t be afraid to set boundaries, Low adds.

If it helps you feel less anxious, ask your friends how they plan to adjust.
Duong with her dog, Maya.

Duong has grown stronger over the past 12 months – and has adopted a dog. If she has to endure another lockdown, she’ll be better equipped to handle it.

“Daily breathwork, meditation and journaling help keep my anxiety under control. I know that the future is uncertain but I’ve spent the last year working through some difficult emotions and I’m hopeful that I’m resilient enough to deal with whatever challenges lie ahead,” she says.
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