Stress is a natural response to uncertainty, and it’s normal to find yourself worrying about future events every now and then.
But excessive thoughts about the future can be a sign of anticipatory anxiety — a fear of unpredictable future events, which is sometimes a symptom of anxiety disorders. This is something I often see in my patients. If left untreated, severe anxiety can cause trouble sleeping, headaches, chronic pain and depression.
Even as a psychotherapist who helps other people cope with stress, I’ve found myself in a cycle of unproductive worrying. Here are three strategies I use every day to cope with or stop obsessing about the future:
1. Answer “What if…?”
When my brain starts to spiral into worst case scenarios, my first instinct is to immediately shut the door on my thoughts because they seem too scary or overwhelming.
But this only gives those fearful thoughts more power over me. Bring your scary thoughts into the light by asking yourself questions about them.
For example, instead of thinking: I messed up at work. My boss is furious. What if I lose my job? — then stopping there and just sitting in panic, encourage yourself to keep going.
Your thought process might go: Well, what if I lose my job? What will happen after? Am I happy in my current role? Should I take some time to figure out what I want to do next? Do I want to work somewhere that would fire me over one mistake? What steps can I take right now to try to get ahead of this?
Answer these questions realistically. The reality is almost always less scary than an ominous, unopened thought sitting in a dark corner of your mind. Plus, you may surprise yourself with what possibilities you come up with.
2. Focus on what you can control
When I’m feeling incredibly anxious about something, it’s easy to go into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. My brain is not able to think logically. It’s only able to act in a way that it thinks will help me survive, which might include trying to control the future.
At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, I found myself spiraling into thoughts about the virus on a global scale, worrying about vaccine progress or constantly checking the news to try to predict what would happen next.
But that wasn’t making me productive. It was only when I changed my perspective to focus on what was within my immediate control that I was able to feel less anxious and think more clearly.
I began to focus on things like washing my hands, maintaining six feet of distance between myself and others, strategically timing my grocery store trips, and creative meal-prepping to minimize shopping trips.
When your thoughts drift to next month or next year, actively bring yourself back to the present and focus on what you can do today, tomorrow or this week only.
3. Look for evidence
I used to think that my thoughts were facts.
For example, if I felt someone was mad at me, then I would stop trying to communicate with them. I’d believe that we were no longer friends. But eventually, I learned to consider alternatives and use evidence to either strengthen or refute my internal narrative.
Now when I think someone is upset with me, I look for evidence: What are some of their behaviors that support how I feel? Has anything changed recently in how they interact with me? Is it possible that they are simply preoccupied with other things that have nothing to do with me? How is work going for them? How is their family doing?
The idea is not to write a new narrative or to make assumptions. Instead, you must remind yourself that we often don’t have the full story about a situation, and that obsessing over anything without facts or evidence can make us jump to false conclusions.
Maybe my friend isn’t mad at me, but if I respond as if they are and act distant or defensive, then they, too, will stop interacting with me as much. As a result, I’ve created the future I was trying to avoid.
Jenny MaenpaaLCSW, EdM, is a psychotherapist and founder of Forward in heelsan intersectional feminist group therapy practice in New York that empowers women to stand tall and own their worth.