Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.

Belief and the Brain

Staying Grounded as the World Rumbles

Worries about the future can overtake the present—if we let them.

Posted Oct 06, 2017

by Emanuel Maidenberg, Ph.D., and Michelle Dexter, Ph.D.  

Current events involving hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and fires around the globe have people thinking, or rather worrying, for their own safety. If we are in a hurricane, flood, earthquake, or fire, we need to act quickly to keep safe. It can be scary and devastating to be in one of these disasters first hand. It is also difficult to watch as an observer.

But what happens after the acute period ends? The water recedes, the ground stays still, the flames no longer burn and the scene on our television screen changes. It makes sense for us to be alert or afraid when we are confronted with some type of danger in our environment. This keeps us safe! But many people continue to worry about potential future dangers or threats, even when their current environment is relatively safe.

The wonderful thing about humans is that we have the ability to think about the future. This can help us prepare, plan and problem solve for upcoming events. Do I have extra food or water? Where is the closest exit in this building? Where do I go in an earthquake? Yet worrying disproportionately about potential future events is not helpful and becomes stressful. So why do we do it?

One possible answer has to do with a biological need to survive: It is better to be over-prepared then under-prepared. When guided by a survival instinct, we often do not take into account all data that exist. Instead, we use a mental shortcut based on the information that most readily comes to mind.

We assume that events we hear about more frequently are more likely to occur (Tversky & Kahneman 1973). Thus, the more we hear about natural disasters occurring in our world, the more we may believe one will occur right in our backyard.

Recurrent images and news stories of natural disasters, coupled with our brain’s motivation to keep us safe, can lead to individuals thinking about potential worst-case scenarios over and over again. This constant worry may become uncontrollable, time consuming and may interfere with daily functioning.

How do we know that it happens? Here are some signs that someone may be stuck in this unhelpful thinking pattern:

  • Constant worry about potential future hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and fires
  • Spending much of the day worrying about other possible future events
  • Engaging in worry that doesn’t actually lead to solving problems
  • Difficulty controlling the worry
  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks at hand due to worry
  • Difficulty sleeping due to worry

Although we can’t control what thoughts come into our mind, other resources can be helpful: For example, we can learn to control our attention. Focusing attention on the present moment, instead of on our thoughts, can help decrease distress. Learning mindfulness is one way to do this. Research has identified several benefits of mindfulness including reduced rumination, stress, and emotional reactivity (Flaxman & Lisa Flook, 2016).

Mindfulness, or non-judgmental presence, merely means being open and curious about what you are experiencing in the present moment. This includes being aware of our emotions, sensations, and thoughts in the moment (Forsyth & Eifert, 2007). The concept is straightforward. The challenge is the effort and patience needed in order to redirect your attention over, and over, and over again. 

References

Flaxman, G & Flook, L. (2016). Brief Summary of Mindfulness Research.  http://marc.ucla.edu/workfiles/pdfs/marc-mindfulness-research-summary.pdf

Forsyth, J.P. & Eifert, G.H. (2007). The mindfulness and acceptance workbook for anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5(2), 207–232.