Do you ever have trouble falling asleep as you worry about situations to come? Or spend the whole day unable to get work done when you’re expecting big news? You’re not alone. a all worry about the future, and it can get pretty taxing. But experts say making small mental shifts when you’re fretting about the future can bring on calm, boost joy and restore your faith in the good things to come.
When you find yourself battling worst-case scenarios, show yourself compassion because they’re perfectly normal, notes Sally M. Winston, PsyD., co-author of the forthcoming Overcoming Anticipatory Anxiety (Pre-order on Amazon, $17.95). “We all have an alarm system in our limbic system, the part of the brain in charge of emotional responses,” she says. “But since it doesn’t know the difference between real danger and a false alarm, our brain makes up a catastrophic narrative, and fears that once felt like a slight possibility suddenly feel more like a probability.”
Indeed, our brain tries to predict the future based on past experiences, explains Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University. “The problem is, when there’s too much uncertainty, this ‘planning brain’ gets overwhelmed, and shuts down, increasing stress.”
The good news? Research shows there are easy ways to stop whirring worries and usher in peace and hope. Here, how to turn What-ifs? into Why nots?
Waiting to hear news? Speed up time with creative ‘flow.’
“Bracing for the worst can be helpful, because it spurs us to plan ahead,” says researcher Kate Sweeny, Ph.D. “But it’s only useful if we do it right before we hear the news—if we brace the entire time, the wait feels interminable.”
To cope with waiting worries, let “flow” help time pass faster. “Flow is a type of focus that makes us lose awareness of time,” says Sweeny. “Worries involve looping thoughts, and the great thing about flow is that it doesn’t allow rogue rumination—it creates total immersion.” Any activity, from puzzling to playing a game, that pushes your skill level just enough to be challenging yet not overwhelming boosts flow because it causes the satisfaction of incremental improvement. Fully occupying your mind until just before you hear the news slashes anxiety and allows you to problem-solve.
Weighing a tough decision? Throw out the pro/con list.
The fear of making the wrong choice can be paralyzing, causing us to avoid taking important risks. When debating a big decision, trust your innate wisdom. “There’s a lot of research suggesting traditional pro-con lists aren’t the ideal way to make a decision,” says Sweeny. “That’s because we’re not objective and we tend to put our thumb on the scale.” Instead, trust your gut. “Pay attention to your intuitive desires,” she urges. “It’s often helpful to jot down a list, but rather than count pros and cons, focus on how they make you feel.”
When it comes to major decisions, our first instinct is often best because it taps the hidden knowledge of our subconscious that we’ve simply come to call “intuition.”
Can’t stop an anxiety spiral? Gently escort worry away.
Instead of suppressing the anxiety, focus on what it’s telling you. “The first step is to recognize that your thoughts are being hijacked by fear,” says Winston. “Don’t try to make that fear go away because suppressing it causes the paradoxical effect—it strengthens anxiety.” She recommends explicitly labeling it while you focus on something else at the same time. “For example, tell yourself, Okay, I’m going to catastrophize while I listen to music.” Accepting what you’re feeling takes away its power and puts you back in the driver’s seat. “This lets you gently escort your mind away from the imagined future, back to the reality of the present moment, and allows you to see just how much control you do have.”
Feeling worry about the future is a natural human condition, but these simple practices can help you get back on track.