We can all experience fear of the future from time to time.
But what about when this fear starts to run out of control and dominate our thinking in an unhelpful way?
We asked a group of selected experts to give us their best advice when it comes to dealing with fear of the future.
Here’s what they said.
Self-talk Can Help With Fear Of The Future
Elyse Springer, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Our brain is designed to keep us safe, to constantly scan the environment for any dangers and respond to those dangers in order to survive.
When we are faced with the unknown and particularly when we are faced with amorphous stressors like ‘the future’, we can shift into a state of hyper-arousal – a fear-state which can build up if we aren’t able to recognize what’s happening.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, we associate a fear of the future with maladaptive cognitive distortions, a pattern of thinking that can contribute to and increase anxiety.
To combat this anxiety, we can ask ourselves:
Is this worry really helping right now?
What exactly am I worried about?
Is there a solution to this worry right now in this moment?
Self-talk is a great tool for managing fear of the future – reminding yourself that even if you don’t know what the future holds, you do know what you are scared it might.
When you clarify for yourself what that fear is, ask ‘what would I need to be safe and free from fear in the future? What are the barriers to that sense of freedom?’
It’s a much better use of your energy to focus on the solution to what might be frightening, rather than spending that energy on what catastrophe may lie ahead.
Remind Yourself That You Are Safe
Sharon Grossman, Psychologist and Success Coach
We fear the future because it is uncertain, and our brain likes something to hold onto.
It wants to feel safe and therefore tries to be able to control and predict what will happen.
Without that predictability, our brain, in an attempt to maintain our survival, looks for anything and everything that could go wrong.
That’s why many of our anxious thoughts start with what if… followed by a catastrophe.
That said, we need to learn to override our worried mind because nothing about the future is really certain.
There are no guarantees and we need to learn to adopt a flexible mindset and adapt to change.
Remind yourself that you are safe. You can use a mantra, a statement that you repeat again and again to calm your brain.
For instance, you might say ‘I am safe’ repeatedly until you calm down. If you are catastrophizing about all the things that might go wrong, consider the possibility that the opposite might happen as well.
Keep in mind that the majority of the time when we predict bad things happening, we are wrong.
If you kept a log of all your predictions and how many of them came to fruition, you’d be able to see how misleading your automatic thinking is and get your rational brain back online.
You Cannot Control The Future By Worrying About It
Bianca Walker, Psychotherapist and Owner of The Self Care Institute of Atlanta
As humans, we are always scanning for threats: threats within our bodies, threats within our environment, and threats within our relationships.
This is a totally unconscious process called neuroception. Right now we are hyper-sensitive to any threats to our safety as we’ve had to adapt to an ongoing threat of an invisible, airborne virus that feels like it came out of nowhere and has changed so much of how we live our lives.
If you’re American, you also know all about the political upheaval that we are living through amid racial and social injustice.
If we’ve learned anything this year, we know that things can change and things that you couldn’t have imagined can happen.
Our minds are already incredibly powerful, able to imagine thousands of scenarios about what could happen in the future, and everything that has happened in 2020 has given us reason to figure out a way to avoid any other misfortune that could possibly happen.
Most of us are masters at “what-if-ing”, but we don’t realize that this unhelpful way of thinking is really just one of many forms of cognitive distortion.
When we worry about the future, many of us believe that we are being proactive by problem-solving before a potential problem arises. We erroneously believe that we are protecting ourselves by fearing what may come.
Most of the time the thing that we fear never happens and this often fosters the false belief that we control the future by worrying about it.
In other words, if we don’t worry about what might happen, it will happen. Or we may believe that future fearful thoughts are foreshadowing, believing that the thought wouldn’t pop into our head if it weren’t going to happen. But this, again, is simply far from the truth.
Here some of my tips to help manage fear of the future:
1) Start a mindfulness practice. Nobody knows what the future holds and uncertainty produces anxiety for so many of us.
Mindfulness allows you to stay in the here and now. Starting a mindfulness practice will also help you to pause and create some space between you and your scary future thoughts.
As you observe your thoughts without judgement, you can even learn to tag “I’m having the thought that…” to the beginning of your future fear in order to help yourself remember that thoughts are just that–thoughts.
Thoughts aren’t facts or predictors of the future. Give your brain props for being so creative as you remind yourself that you don’t have to believe everything that you think.
2) Stay within your locus of control. Ask yourself, is there anything that I can do, fix, change, to prevent my fearful thought from happening? If so, go for it! Do what you can.
Putting something into place may decrease your anxiety about the fearful thought happening. If it’s something that is out of your control, think about what is in your control. How can you support yourself through self-care? Are you tending to your physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs?
These are things that you can do to attend to your health and well-being in spite of what’s going on in the world.
This Too Shall Pass
Prianca Naik, Internal Medicine Physician and Life Coach
People have a natural tendency to fear what they can’t control.
However, the truth is that we cannot control much. We can control ourselves. It is easier to look outward instead of inward for problems.
Tips for managing the future: One of my favorite sayings is, “this too shall pass”.
The only certainty in life is change. Tough times, as well as happy times, are transient and far from permanent.
Try to tether yourself to the present moment with mind-body awareness. Feel the pull of gravity on your body and focus on your breath for a few moments.
This practice allows you to be here now. It pulls you away from the default mode network, which has a tendency to ruminate on the past and future.
Acknowledge That Worrying About The Future Is Normal
Dr Jessica Borushok, The Busy Mind Psychologist
Our minds are threat detection systems. Their entire purpose designed to keep us alive. As a result, your mind is constantly scanning and looking for what could go wrong.
Because the future is uncertain, we spend a lot of time planning, analyzing, and attempting to predict the future.
First, acknowledge that worrying about the future is normal. Many people fear that if they are concerned about the future it means something bad is coming.
But worry in unpredictable situations, like the future, is completely normal and appropriate.
Recognize that focusing on the future does not help us feel better or be more prepared for the future.
In the short term, worrying, over-planning, over-analyzing helps us feel productive or prepared, but in reality all it does is increase our preoccupation with the future and fear of what might go wrong.
One tip for differentiating between helpful planning and over-analyzing is to ask yourself, ‘am I learning new information from thinking about this future problem?’
Generally, if we have already thought through a future scenario once or twice, going through it a third time does not give us additional information.
Stay focused on what is within your control. We only have control over what we do and say in the moment, and even that has limitations.
Spending too much time focused on what is outside of our control, mainly other people and the future or past, can lead to increased distress and frustration.
When you’re getting caught up in worrying about the future, pause, and ask yourself, what can I do in this moment to best help me for the future?
Focus On What You Can Control
Jimena Picciano, Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Owner of Hispanic Therapy
For many people, the future means uncertainty – especially in this difficult time we are all experiencing that has no precedent – and uncertainty is usually linked to anxiety.
The cause of anxiety is not thinking about the future but wanting to control it.
Think about the things you can control: boundaries I set, finding new ways to keep myself busy, my mindset and the way I speak to myself, the way I treat others and the media I read, for example.
And then also be clear about the things you cannot control: how quickly things resolve, what is on the news, other people’s actions, other people’s feelings, what other people think about me, safety rules and regulations.
If we put our focus on what we actually do have control over, we will feel empowered to face the future.
Focus On The Present Moment
Paul Harrison, Meditation Teacher and Founder of The Daily Meditation
The primary reason why people fear the future is uncertainty. Indeed, fear, in general, is caused by uncertainty.
And this year there are so many reasons to be uncertain about the future. No wonder fear is affecting so many people at the moment.
Thankfully there is a (relatively) quick and easy way to get a handle on fear: Mindfulness and meditation.
Research shows that mindfulness and meditation can reduce feelings of fear and anxiety by guiding the mind back towards the present moment and promoting the parasympathetic nervous system to produce feelings of relaxation.
The general consensus among meditation experts is that to overcome the fear of the future, we should focus on the present moment.
However, I would like to go one step further and state that we should be mindful of the feeling of fear itself.
Many people forget that fear is just a feeling. They believe that fear is created by external circumstances, such as the pandemic.
However, fear is entirely a phenomenon of the mind. It is a feeling created by the mind, and nothing more than that. The trick to overcoming feat is to mindfully accept the pure feeling of fear itself.
We can do this with Vipassana. To perform Vipassana, close your eyes and breathe in through your nose. Take some mindful breaths to relax.
Now begin to mindfully observe the feeling of fear. Notice the way fear feels in the body and mind. Observe the fact that it is just a temporary condition. Label the emotion, saying to yourself, “This is a temporary feeling of fear, and nothing more”.
We Only Have The Power To Change Our World In The Present Moment
Zahara Jade, Founder of The Truth Catalyst
The future can seem dark, ominous, and unwieldy. It is unwritten and unknown. Monsters can creep up around any corner if we aren’t careful.
Accustomed to our comfortable, planned-out existence, the future can feel like the Wild West.
Out of control of the present moment, if we slip into the pattern of replaying endless future possibilities, we can easily become overwhelmed, anxious, and have a meltdown.
As events happen that throw our world into chaos, such as the pandemic and climate change, people feel hopelessness, depression, grief, and fear about the future.
Not to be confused with a clinical disorder, eco-anxiety can exacerbate already pressing issues like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This chronic fear of environmental doom, according to the APA, is taking a long-term toll on mental health and wellness.
We only have the power to change our world in the present moment.
If you are overwhelmed by a fear of the future, interrupting your thought patterns and bringing them back into the present is critical. This can be done in several ways.
1) Take several slow, deep breaths, and connect to your body. Notice how it feels, observe what emotions arise.
2) Spend one to five minutes meditating every day. Moving meditation (walking, dancing) is useful if your mind is over-active. Use your breath to reconnect to sensations in your body, coming back to the present moment.
3) Detox from the news and social media for one week. Notice how your mind and body feel afterward. When you return, limit your usage to an amount that is comfortable.
4) When you find yourself spiralling into the future (or past), use an affirmation to bring yourself back. Something along the lines of, “My power to control my life exists in the present moment.”
Stay Present And Set Positive Intentions For The Future
Stephanie Thoma, Certified Anxiety Relief Hypnotherapist
We find ourselves fearing the future when our past or present circumstances have caused us stress or strife.
Even if we are presently in a calm state where things within and outside of ourselves are going well, we may still experience anxiety based on the worry of an ‘inevitable’ disruption to the period of peace in our lives.
The way to combat anxiety about the future is twofold: staying present and positive intention setting for the future.
You can stay present through meditation or hypnosis to help ground and root you in what you are currently experiencing with your five senses.
Typically, in the moment of meditation, all is well and if we feel ill at ease it’s typically past or future-focused.
The next step is to set positive intentions for the future. This will e particularly helpful if you are prone to catastrophizing and envisioning the worst possible future for yourself.
Instead, take time to write out your ideal outcome or future scenario. Don’t spare any details, and go over-the-top.
Once you have this clarified, you can use it as a guided visualization to revisit, intentionally replacing the negative thoughts when they surface to bring you a sense of calm, trust, and confidence in your future.
Challenge Your Irrational Thinking
Sierra Hillsman, Licensed Associate Professional Counselor and Founder of Legacy Speaks
When working with clients, I find that the fear of the future stems from the fear of not being in control of a situation and/or outcome that may or may not even occur.
Individuals also experience increased fear of uncertainty. Humans are creatures of habit. Familiarity is predictable and we’re able to cope with what is routine and constant, regardless of how inconvenient or stressful they may be.
Common go-tos for managing the fear of the future are grounding techniques like deep breathing, counting to and from 10, and remaining fully present by increasing mindfulness.
Practicing gratitude for today frees us from the pressures of trying to control tomorrow.
Challenging irrational thinking is important as well because it helps to reduce catastrophizing. This allows us to widen our perspectives as well by simply asking ourselves, “What’s the likelihood of this happening?”
Supplement Mindfulness With Intention-Setting And Meaning
Dmitri Oster, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Psychotherapist and Founder of United Consulting Services
I work with a lot of clients – and especially during this time – that are presenting with fear and anxiety about their personal future, and the future in general.
For a lot of individuals, the future can be fearful because it is unknown and not always under an individual’s direct control.
Although we cannot change the past nor fully anticipate and control the course of events in the future, we do have an ability to access and exercise control over our present moment.
Much of what an individual does in the present moment extends into and actually influences the future to varying degrees.
When one begins to think about how they can influence their future by being emotionally present and engaged in the present moment, anxiety towards the future tends to lessen.
Many researchers and clinicians have looked into the benefits of becoming mindful as this is a practice that allows an individual to become more aware and cognizant of their present experience.
A focus on the present does bring with it many benefits to containing anxiety and learning to become attentive to what is, rather than what could be.
In my practice, I find it helpful to supplement mindfulness practices with a secondary focus on intention-setting and meaning.
This focus takes its reference points from existential therapy – a form of talk therapy that has seemingly been eclipsed by the media-saturation of the twenty-first century.
I notice that individuals that are able to ascribe a personal meaning and significance to the routines of their daily life are in a much better place to accept the uncertainty of the future.
Those individuals are more rooted in their present engagements, which allows for a more receptive and personally accepting stance to manage future events.
Uncertainty Does Not Necessarily Equal Negative Circumstances
Karen R. Koenig, Psychology of Eating Psychotherapist, Author and Blogger
We experience fear and anxiety about the future because we are fear-based animals with the same programming as our ancestors of 200,000 years ago.
Fear is an automatic physiological reaction to danger; anxiety is a mental response to a perceived threat to self.
In terms of evolution, those who had highly developed fear instincts survived and thrived. Those who didn’t, perished.
Today, though we live in a far less dangerous world than humans did 200,000 years ago, we still maintain these functions and become especially fearful and anxious when we believe we lack control and can’t keep ourselves safe.
The future is one of those things we have little control over, so we fear it. To us, the future equals uncertainty, which people often think equals negative consequences.
This is especially true of folks who lived through and adapted to a great deal of fear in childhood due to abuse, neglect or circumstances beyond their control.
The truth is that uncertainty is simply not knowing and it should not be confused with negative consequences.
There are several ways to manage anxiety about the future. One is to remind yourself that you are fine now and will work your hardest to be fine in the future.
If you have confidence that you can bear whatever happens, you will continue to be fine.
Another is to ask yourself if you’re safe now and continue to ask yourself that in the present. We are often perfectly safe in the moment and need to focus on that.
Also, we can avoid catastrophizing and stay mindful about the present through soothing self-talk, grounding ourselves in the present, and managing our thoughts.
We do this by asking if a thought is useful. If so, we allow ourselves to think about it. If not, we do not allow the thought in.
The above all takes practice and comprises the best ways I know to avoid falling into the anxiety trap.