August 12, 2020

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Guest Author

Why Can’t I Stop Worrying About The Future?

You may have felt anticipatory anxiety even before the impact of the pandemic, for example if you were planning for a stressful event or preparing for a big presentation. MyWellbeing is here to share some tips on how to take care of your mental health while planning for a seemingly ever-changing future.

How to Cope with Anticipatory Anxiety

We are currently in the midst of some of the largest-scale, most tumultuous events that many of us have lived through to date. Although anticipatory anxiety is not new, the persisting COVID-19 pandemic and police violence against Black Lives Matter protests may be causing us to feel increased anxiety about what the future may look like.

You might be feeling the direct impact of these events in your personal life or at work, or your circumstances may seem to be constantly up in the air. It is important to keep up with the news cycle, advocating for and working towards the larger societal goals we value. It is also important to plan for our own personal futures and try to ensure that what we are doing today will help us in the long run.

Balancing global engagement, the everyday pressures of life, and the current volatility of our circumstances might make us feel overwhelmed, hopeless, or even panicked. However, learning techniques to plan for the future while staying grounded in the present moment can be helpful in calming our anxiety.

You may have felt anticipatory anxiety even before the impact of the pandemic, for example if you were planning for a stressful event or preparing for a big presentation. MyWellbeing is here to share some tips on how to take care of your mental health while planning for a seemingly ever-changing future.

What is anticipatory anxiety?

Anticipatory anxiety refers to the increased anxiety levels one may feel when thinking about a future situation or event, according to Anxiety UK. If you have anticipatory anxiety, you may have this feeling for months at a time and find yourself making negative predictions about future events.

Right now, with so many things up in the air (such as the reopening dates and plans of workplaces and communities) you might be feeling anticipatory anxiety about having to go back into the outside world. Or, you might have a general sense of anxiety about the state of your job or the world at large in a post-corona society. This is all completely valid and normal. These fears may develop into anticipatory anxiety if you find yourself completely consumed by these ideas, and constantly thinking about the worst case scenario.

Uncertainty of what the future holds can lead to anticipatory anxiety because, when we do not know what is going to happen, we lose our sense of control over mitigating adverse effects, according to psychologists at the University of Wisconsin--Madison. The human brain, in fact, is an “anticipation machine,” so it is natural that we would feel this way.

Is anticipatory anxiety always bad?

“Some anticipatory anxiety can be helpful,” points out Shimmy Feintuch, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. For example, “if you weren’t worried about a speech you had to give, you might not adequately prepare.”

However, Feintuch explains that, if the anxiety gets too intense it can lead to counterproductive outcomes, such as undue stress, procrastination, or a feeling of being so stuck that you aren’t able to do anything.

How do I realistically plan for the future without becoming very anxious?

Acknowledging your anxiety does not mean that your fears are not real. “Staying realistic and productive will help you prepare for life transitions, like losing your job, without spiraling,” says therapist and MyWellbeing community member Jennifer Mann.

If you have reason to believe you might be losing your job, Mann recommends starting by getting organized. Write down your plan on paper to get it out of your head. Your plan can include a to-do list; financial and housing resources; and other support systems such as neighbors, friends, and family.

There is no right or wrong way to plan, but getting your concerns and possible solutions down on paper can help you feel less anxious about the myriad of possibilities the future holds. Moreover, staying organized can help you to cope if and when something happens and you need to use your plan.

Once you have written something down and you know what steps you could take if a likely scenario occurs, you can give yourself permission to let go of the negative thoughts surrounding it.

How can I keep up with the news without feeling completely overwhelmed about the future?

We can often feel a sense of guilt about feeling overwhelmed by the news, but this is completely normal and okay. In fact, if we continue to overstimulate ourselves once we already feel anxious, it can lead to burnout, which may cause us to stop paying attention to the news altogether. Recognizing when you may need to take a brief step back to prioritize your mental health is important in the long run.

“Keeping up with the news right now may look different than it did in a pre-corona world,” says Mann. Since there is an influx of information and several sources commenting on the impact of COVID-19, it can be easy to become overwhelmed, she says.

Mann recommends finding one or two outlets that provide you with the most important information regarding your health and wellness right now. “If possible, avoid overstimulating yourself with every article and news source by prioritizing your needs and interests.”

Additionally, The Guardian describes some techniques for combating news burnout, such as turning off push notifications, avoiding reading the news right before bed, and prioritizing trusted sources.

Staying informed about current events does not have to mean compromising your mental health.

How can I reduce anticipatory anxiety?

Constantly thinking about worst-case scenarios and “what if” situations can feel like “mental gymnastics,” says therapist and MyWellbeing community member Julia King. “Interrupting those processes and directing your attention elsewhere--with intention and without judgment--can be quite empowering,” she says. “But, you can't just tell yourself to stop thinking about it.”

Nicole Brown, a therapist and member of the MyWellbeing community, recommends “[asking] yourself how true the ‘worst case scenario’ feels.”

“When the catastrophic thoughts pop in, stop, take a breath, and ask yourself, ‘how likely [is it that this] will this actually happen, [on a ] scale of 1-10?’” Brown recommends. Inserting these moments to take a step back and rationally evaluate our situation can help the big picture feel less overwhelming, Brown explains.

Additionally, King describes a few strategies for shifting your awareness towards the present moment when you can’t stop thinking about potential future events. She recommends directing your attention to one of three things: your breath, your body, or your senses.

“Feel your feet on the floor. Feel--and simply observe, or perhaps count--your breath. Name five things you see and five things you hear. Create a pause. Reset. Go forward choosing to redirect your attention away from the future event and back to the present,” she says.

Moreover, “a mindfulness practice can help you stay rooted in the present and reduce ruminative thoughts,” adds Feintuch. He recommends using apps such as Headspace or Ten Percent Happier, or even better, working with a mindfulness teacher or a therapist who is knowledgeable about the subject.

Overall, incorporating ideas of mindfulness and gratitude into your daily life can help you cope with anticipatory anxiety, according to therapist and MyWellbeing community member Zoe Reyes.

Okay, but I still feel uncertain all the time even if I am not anxious. How do I cope with this?

It is completely valid that these circumstances warrant our extra thoughts and worries, because they are distressing on a global scale. However, this fact also shows us that we are not alone, Mann points out.

It is natural to want to make predictions about the future, since we may feel completely unsure of what it will bring--positive or negative. However, “effectively navigating anxiety-provoking situations marked by uncertainty requires an acceptance of the situation as it is, which includes not having an answer,” says King.

To become confident in our ability to take on an uncertain world, we first need to accept the risk that the situations we are in might have unfavorable outcomes, King explains. Instead of tricking ourselves into thinking our anxiety is preparing us for the future, recognizing and accepting that there are things out of our control can ultimately better prepare us.

“Right now, it is helpful to take things one step at a time,” adds Mann.“ Taking each day one step at a time allows us to be grounded in the present and feel absorbed in what we do know. What we do know is in the now, the present moment.”

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