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Why Thinking About the Future Can Improve Depression

Feeling blue? Thinking about the future can make you feel more hopeful.

Key points

  • Traditional therapy has focused on the past, but research shows thinking about the future can help depression.
  • Thinking about the future can reduce rumination, increase optimism, and create a sense of purpose.
  • Some future-thinking skills to use include visualization, goal-setting, and getting to know your future self.
Unsplash: Norbert Kundrak
Source: Unsplash: Norbert Kundrak

Depression is a complex mental health condition that affects millions of people worldwide. While there are a variety of treatments available such as therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes, one approach that has gained attention in recent years is focusing on positive future events and outcomes.

What most people don't know is that the brain is anticipatory in nature. Because we can only move toward the future, the brain has developed to be future-oriented and we spend a good deal of time speculating about what could happen five minutes, five days, or five years from now.

But how you think about the future matters to your emotional health. Thinking about too many negative things creates anxiety. Not thinking about enough positive things can lead to depression.

Research has shown that many people with depression have several areas of the brain responsible for future thinking that are underactive, and this makes it more difficult for them to anticipate positive future events. But research also shows that these parts of the brain can be stimulated with specific goal-related activities. Teaching people with depression skills for creating positive future events has been shown to boost their mood and improve their quality of life.

So, how exactly can future thinking help improve depression?

  1. Reducing rumination: One of the hallmark symptoms of depression is rumination, which involves repetitive negative thinking about past events or current problems. Future thinking can help break this cycle by shifting the focus towards positive future possibilities. By focusing on a positive future, people with depression can begin to see past events as learning experiences rather than something that they are stuck with.
  2. Increasing optimism: By imagining positive future scenarios, people can begin to develop a more optimistic outlook. This can help improve mood and increase motivation to work towards a better future.
  3. Creating a sense of purpose: Depression can often leave people feeling directionless and without a sense of purpose. By envisioning a positive future, individuals can identify goals and aspirations that give them a sense of meaning and direction. This can help increase motivation and provide a sense of fulfillment.
  4. Reducing anxiety: Anxiety often co-occurs with depression, and positive future thinking and planning can help alleviate anxiety by reducing uncertainty about the future. By imagining positive outcomes, people can develop a sense of control and confidence in their ability to handle future challenges.

There are lots of ways to incorporate future thinking into your daily routine. Some of my favorites are:

  1. Goal-setting: Identify one or two goals that you would like to achieve in the future. Write them down and create a plan to work towards them.
  2. Visualization exercises: Spend a few minutes each day imagining a positive future situation that you're looking forward to such as a vacation, or even just going for a walk with a friend. Visualize the details of the scenario, including what you see, hear, feel, and smell.
  3. Develop a relationship with your future self: Until the day you die, you have a future self. What you do now is always creating that very real version of you that you will eventually become. Think about who you want to become and what you can do now to move in that direction. The more you think about being that future self, the more your current thoughts and actions will start to align.

Deliberately spending more time thinking about your future in a positive way can not only fight depression but can also boost your overall emotional health and quality of life. Just remember: Think forward to thrive!

More from Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D.
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