Yes, the future worries me. Interestingly, a year ago, I wrote and published this article on worrying about the future. Little did I know that a year later, this topic would be most appropriate.
As we continue to struggle with the societal effects of COVID-19, the future worries me. It’s, seemingly, more unsure than ever before in our personal history. Will we return to “normal,” or will the past “normal” never be experienced again?
If we stay focused on the future, then yes, we should be worried about the future. How do we cope with this worry? Read on as I offer my four tips for dealing with the future.
None of us knows the future. Therefore, by its nature, the future is unknown. Since it’s an unknown, it tends to be scary, because I can’t prepare myself for it. Therefore, the future worries me. As humans, most of us desire to be in control of our daily lives, although, no matter how much we strive for control, much of life is beyond our control. The future is one of those areas outside of our control.
When we feel that we can’t control an aspect of our lives, then we feel “out of control.” Feeling out of control is scary itself as we worry about where we will end up if we aren’t in control. So, the future is not only an unknown, but it’s also out of our control. Actually, the future isn’t in anybody’s control!
So yes, when the future worries me, it should! THAT’S NORMAL!
When I work with clients who share their worries about the future, obsessing over it, stressing over it, I help them understand that their future feelings are to be expected. If we are to dwell in the future, meaning, keeping our thoughts focused on the future, then we will be worried and anxious. The statement that the future worries me is deeply felt. I let my clients know that although what they’re feeling is a normal response to their thoughts, if they would instead not feel worried and anxious, then they need to do only one thing – change their thoughts!
Keeping my thoughts in the future causes me to worry and have anxiety. Does it not make sense that changing my thoughts and removing my thoughts from the future would cause me less worry and stress? The standard definition of insanity is doing the same action over and over, yet expecting a different result. Therefore, the definition of sanity is doing a different action and getting a different result.
Here are my four tips for coping when the future worries me:
- Refocus your thoughts: Throughout the day, whenever you feel worried or anxious, pause a moment to notice where your thoughts are focused. Are your thoughts focused on the past or the future? If so, this is the source of your worry. The future worries me when I dwell in the future. Consciously move your thoughts back to the present moment by consciously focusing on what you are now seeing, feeling, experiencing, etc. We have control over the present moment, so keeping our thoughts focused on the present reduces our worry and anxiety.
- Change your perspective: Perspective is how you see and interpret the world around you. Our interpretation is derived after being “filtered” through how you feel about yourself. If you’re negative about yourself, you’re most likely negatively focused on the world around you, and vice versa. Changing our perspective on an issue allows us to view a different way of thinking, which may help us find a solution different than those we’ve tried before. A different solution leads to a different outcome, and therefore sanity.
- Worst case scenario: When we dwell in the future, we tend to focus on what can go wrong (TIP: a change in perspective would be changing your focus from what can go wrong to what can go right. Why must it be negative? Since I don’t know my future, why focus my thoughts on only one option, the negative option? Since I don’t see the future, isn’t it possible that it could be positive?). Since you’re already focused on what can go wrong, consciously ask yourself, “What’s the worst-case scenario?”. When you objectively and logically review what you fear as the worst case may, in fact, not even be that bad!
A few months ago, I was working with a client on this very topic. I used the example of what if a sinkhole developed right now, and this whole building went down. What’s the worst case? The client stated that the worst thing that could happen is that he dies. I asked why that’s the worst that could happen to him? Of course, he mentioned family, kids, friends, etc., but that’s not the worst case for him; it’s the worst case for them! If he dies, he’s dead, there are no more worries or concerns for him. So the worst case might be that he survives and is scared. Yes, being scared is normal. What do you do next? You try to climb out; you either succeed at it or rescuers finally get you out. Regardless, the odds of being trapped in the hole, alive, with no one coming to save us, would be rare. And if you say, “but what about the zombie apocalypse”? Well, in that scenario, I would rather be hidden in the hole. My point being, worrying about a future sinkhole will cause anxiety. Still, understanding that even the worst-case scenario isn’t that bad allows us to reduce our worry about an impending sinkhole.
- Plan for the future with a reasonable expectation: Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. I’m not saying that to live in the present means, we forego any future planning. Not at all! First, concerning the scenario for which you are planning, determine those areas of the situation for which you do and don’t have control over. Those areas you have no control over you need to ignore. But, those areas you do have control over, you need to make plans. Understand that the decisions you make today will impact your future plans. And, situations and events out of your control will change your future plans. This is why I say that we need to have reasonable expectations. We can make the best plans in the world, but keep in the back of your mind that they may not come true. And that’s alright. Why? The opportunities which may open up for you instead may be better than what you wanted. In the future, other opportunities may exist which don’t exist today, and there’s no way of knowing that until we live in the future’s present moment. So, make your goals, plan for your future, but keep an open mind to what that future may actually reveal.
Let this thought comfort you: today was yesterday’s future for which you worried. Was it as bad as you thought? Tomorrow is today’s future. What decisions and plans can you make today to help you in the future of tomorrow?
To overcome fear, one needs to believe they will be happy on the other side, and that getting to the other side of fear is possible. Knowing and believing are two very different attitudes. In this article, I use my own childhood fear as an example throughout. Keep in mind, we need fear to live, so be careful in what fear you try to overcome.
As a young child, I had many fears, as I’m sure most children experience. For me, my most significant event to overcome fear was the weather, specifically thunderstorms. I was convinced that every storm would spawn a tornado which would ultimately find and pulverize my house, with me in it! Now, please know that I did not grow up in tornado alley or in a tornado prone area. Yes, we experienced the random water spout and once a decade, or so a tornado would develop. The tornadoes were far enough from my house not to see the funnel of destruction but close enough that the local newspaper printed articles about the twister.
I have no idea of the origin of my fear, but I knew exactly how to overcome fear in this situation. To overcome fear is not easy, primarily when our fear is rooted in reality. In my childhood situation, the fact was that tornadoes did happen in my area, do spawn from thunderstorms, and are capable of demolishing houses. Therefore, to that extent of reality, my fear was justified.
Yet there’s another perspective, or reality, to be examined if we want to overcome fear. In my case, reality also demonstrated that a tornado never formed in my neighborhood, at the time I had never seen a tornado, and in my 18 years growing up in my childhood home, it was never demolished by a tornado (actually that home still stands to this day). So yes, there was a reason for my fear, but also yes, my childhood fear was unfounded.
Fear is powerful, convincing us to either flee or fight against a known or unknown danger waiting to harm us. The threat, for our first ancestors, was primarily focused on physical survival issues, life, and death situations. Today our fears tend to be focused on emotional survival issues. Emotional survival is as essential to our overall survival as is physical survival. Fear is instinctual as a means to protect us in situations where protection is needed so that we survive and reach the other side of that which was threatening.
Since fear serves to protect us from both physical and emotional harm, guiding us along a path of survival, why then even talk about how to overcome fear? Shouldn’t we embrace fear as our protector? Fear is actually not our problem, as such, I should change the title of this article. The problem we have is how we cope with our fear. The initial reaction to either flee or fight is helpful, but becoming stuck in either mode is detrimental to moving forward. It’s so much easier to flee or fight when the situation is physical. Yet when the threat is emotional, fleeing or fighting is more difficult to notice, and so we become stuck.
As a child, my response to thunderstorms was to hide under my bed or to run into the basement. The latter is the preferred location if there actually were a tornado present, yet for me, it was an escape, a fleeing, to where I felt safe. My becoming stuck was not fleeing to the basement, but doing so, when there was no need to do so. I would leave friends, activities, family, etc. to flee to the imagined safety of the basement. Fleeing when it leads to safety is healthy and wise; fleeing solely out of fear is unhealthy and being stuck.
What have I learned from my childhood into adulthood on how to overcome fear?
- Reflect: When you feel afraid, take action to protect yourself. After you’ve acted, reflect on yourself and the situation to determine if your response to your fear is healthy or not, using the example I gave above.
- Act: Take action, not to overcome fear, but to overcome your unhealthy response to fear. As I grew older, and while hiding in the basement, I happened upon a very old book set somewhat hidden under my Dad’s tool bench. As I uncovered the books, I noticed that one of the books was about the weather, explaining the forces and science behind how the weather works and safety tips. My action was in learning about that which I feared, causing me to have a respectful fear of Mother Nature. I now know when seeking shelter and being afraid is necessary and when it’s not. As an adult, I now spend free time chasing storms. I enjoy sitting on my deck to watch the beauty of the lightning show, and I’ve even been in storms which spawned tornadoes that I was able to see. Some of these experiences produced no fear in me while others produced much fear, and healthily, I respected the power of nature and took shelter.
- Fight: Fight within yourself to believe that you can overcome your fear. When I first started to learn about the weather I “knew” I could handle my fear, yet it took years of maturing and study to “believe” that I could overcome fear and respond healthily. Start with “knowing” but continue to fight and work until you get to “believing” in yourself.
- Flee: It’s important not to think of fleeing with a negative connotation. Fleeing from a harmful situation is wise for survival and for providing time to create a plan of action. In modern life, physically fleeing, or leaving a person or condition may be the healthiest action to take for your own emotional well-being. Similarily, emotional fleeing from a situation, controlled and not permanent, can have the same healthy effect as does physical fleeing. Keep in mind that healthy or unhealthy flight is dependant upon your motivation and the reality of the threat. An emotionally abusive relationship might require a person to flee physically. Yet a person who simply doesn’t like a situation, their fleeing may be an unhealthy escape. Sometimes circumstances may be able to be fixed if you stay and fight.
Yes, we need fear to live and survive, but how we respond to our fear is what makes the difference in our emotional health. If you want to live a happy and peaceful life, practice believing in yourself that you can overcome fear by the way you cope with your fear.