Can't Stop Worrying About the Future?

Three anxiety hacks to reclaim your sanity so you can get back to living, now.

Posted Sep 21, 2020

Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

Everyone worries. It’s one of the things that makes us human. But when you can’t stop worrying about the future, it can feel anything but normal.

Intelligence predicts, that is its essence; the same intelligence that allows us to plan, hope, imagine, and hypothesize also allows us to worry and anticipate negative outcomes. — Norman Doidge

Worry is a feeling whose source almost always lies in the future. It often exposes fears of not achieving or experiencing longed-for hopes and dreams.

Yet, that doesn’t mean you should try to avoid worry by cutting yourself off from hopes and dreams. Defining long-term goals and dreams is critical to motivation and a future-based focus. Without goals and dreams, you can lose a sense of purpose and drive in your life.

But when you can’t stop worrying about the future, it can dominate your thoughts and override your present. And this can be a destructive way to live.

The future, after all, is infinite and unpredictable. There are just too many scenarios and options to consider to ever feel like you have a handle on them.

Overgeneralizing, taking today’s experience and applying it indiscriminately to the future, significantly worsens worry. If you think today’s circumstances are difficult and extrapolate them to a similar forecast of the future, you may quickly find you can’t stop worrying about the future.

And yet, you can stop incessant worry. These three anxiety hacks can help you feel saner and more present.

1. Break down the future into manageable chunks.

Allowing yourself to catalog what might happen, and how much pain you will feel as a result, is a sign you can’t stop worrying about the future. Going down this road can lead to sabotaging your efforts in the present.

Instead of derailing yourself from your dreams and goals, consider the mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous and take things “one day at a time.” That’s all you need to focus on — today.

Paula, a client of mine, ran a half-marathon this way. When she felt like quitting, she took it one minute at a time. When she felt worried about not being able to keep going, she made a deal with herself to keep going for the next 60 seconds and then reconsider.

The next 60 seconds and then reconsider. And the next. 

Literally minute by minute, she kept at her goal until she finished.

By breaking down the future into manageable chunks, you can build your tolerance for a variety of worries and concerns, one day at a time, one minute at a time, even one breath at a time.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

2. Practice thinking big and small, and toggling your perspective.

I have a friend who seesaws his perspective as needed to manage his worry about the future. When the details are a struggle, he shifts to the big picture, which is usually a worthy goal. When the final result — the big picture — is scary, he focuses on the little things in front of him.

Pulling your time horizon closer to the present will help you see what’s in front of you and within your control. Few of us feel control over the distant future, but most of us can see what we have control over right now. We can literally envision what we need to do in the next five minutes, hour or day, but too far into the future gets harder to visualize. It can easily become too conceptual, and we can fall into feeling that we can’t stop worrying about the future.

3. Focus on the signal, not the symptoms.

Instead of being derailed by uncertainties and fears of the future, try thinking differently about what you’re feeling. What if your worry about the future is actually a signal for you to focus on new and important tasks? What if your worry is actually providing the energy and motivation you need to solve the new and important tasks? What if your worry is actually an invitation to devote attention to your future?

By asking yourself questions like these, you gain control over your worry. You stop feeling out of control. You start feeling more capable.

Perspective is powerful when it comes to putting worry in its place and harnessing its energy to tackle future challenges. Questions like those above can shift perspective dramatically and quickly.

These three anxiety hacks are some of the most powerful for stopping worry. They work because they shift focus from the unknowns of the future back to the present. And when you are focused on the present, you feel calmer and saner. You also regain your ability to shape your future, and in this way, take ultimate control over your anxiety.

Also published on Dr. Clark's blog. Reprinted with permission.