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Why am I so anxious about the future?

Let's hear from our experts about how to forget our fear of future events and understand anticipatory anxiety, once and for all...

We asked the professionals (and consulted a few philosophers) about whether it’s possible to learn to look at the life we have ahead in a new light, to appreciate the present without pondering potential failures, and to approach change as a new challenge, rather than a chokehold. The answer? Well, it turns out these experts don’t deal in absolutes...

“I don’t know.” It’s frightening to say. We humans are programmed to find patterns and philosophise predictions about everything. From physics to football and even the afterlife, we seem to have an innate need to just know. We seek out spoilers for suspenseful TV shows, fearing the fate of our favourite characters. We hedge bets about big sports matches and use ‘serendipity’ and ‘everything for a reason’ to explain away the curious phenomenon of coincidental events. So how, in an epoch seemingly more uncertain than ever before, are us mere mortals meant to cope with the cataclysmic uncertainty of the climate crisis, Covid-19, or even the more mundane and everyday unknowns that are surfacing all around us?

Well, in short, we’re finding it hard. According to the NHS, November 2021 saw a record number of people requesting access to their Talking Therapy Programme, up 5% from the previous year. ‘How to maintain mental health’ was searched on Google more than ever before, and a large international study from 2021 found that 45% of teens and young adults say that ‘eco-anxiety’ – a form of stress about the sustainability of life on earth as we know it – affects their daily lives.

So, how did we become so future-phobic? And how can we arm ourselves with the necessary weapons to fight the fear of what’s about to come? I’ve spoken to an assortment of psychologists about the best ways to beat the blues that stem from uncertainty. It turns out I had a lesson or two to learn myself...

Live in the present

“Whether it concerns a global pandemic, a relationship breakdown (romantic or otherwise), a death, debt, redundancy or even your health, much of what lies ahead in life remains uncertain,” explains Liz Ritchie, psychotherapist for mental health charity St Andrew’s Healthcare.

“It’s completely natural that, as humans, we crave security. We have a primal need to feel safe and have a sense of control over our lives and wellbeing. ‘Anticipatory anxiety’ can drain us emotionally and trap us in a downward spiral of endless catastrophising, until we end up desperately concerned with the ‘what-ifs’, permanently pondering the worst-case-scenarios of what tomorrow may bring.”

Liz warns that, “Even worry itself can give us a misguided sense of control. We often feel that by agonising over a problem, we’ll find a solution and determine the outcome ourselves. Sadly, this just isn’t true. The only sure thing that worrying will do is deprive you of living in and enjoying the present moment.”

The past few years are evidence enough that, even with the best preparation, we can’t control the universe. Job security is always subject to change in industry and organisational upheaval; relationships evolve and fizzle as people grow and heal. By living in the moment, we’re learning to deal with life as it actually is, and there’s no point exerting our energy or time concerning ourselves with potential problems that might never arise: “Save your brain and body strength for the here and now,” says Liz. “You’ll realise you have more to give this way.”

Become your own certainty

As the external world around us shifts and the people that surround us grow, evolve, and pass on, the only thing you can be truly sure of is yourself and your own behaviours. Holding out for a ‘big break’ or ‘soul mate’ might feel like you’re fortifying your future, but the only sense of absolute certainty we experience in our lives is borne of ourselves – our own actions and reactions are the only things we can truly predict. Be emboldened by this thought. You are your everyday constant and your own certainty – that’s pretty empowering!

In our interview, leading psychologist and psychotherapist Dr Alison McClymont told me, “It can be really important to compartmentalise life and realise that if we’re having issues in one sphere, it needn’t bleed into another. When a romantic relationship starts showing cracks, for example, it tends to cloud our judgement of the future, derailing the ‘secure’ and ‘definite’ impression that we had of what our life would always be like.

“Realising that nothing is ever absolute and that the ups and downs of work, relationships or finances only make up one facet of our future existence can really help us to stabilise our emotions when facing adversity,” explains Dr McClymont. “Tell yourself ‘I’m having a tough time in X area of life, but Y and Z are fairly solid’ – this simple affirmation can remind us that we’re not fully at the mercy of our environment; we’re our own entity with agency and can manage the changes we face however we choose to.”

Build resilience

It may seem like one of those ‘you’ve either got it or you don’t’ situations, but studies have shown that resilience is something we can actively develop, even in later life. Look back at what you’ve been through – from your first day of school to navigating tricky situations at work, tearful breakups and even those days when spilling a cup of tea is enough to make you curl into a ball – a resilient mentality is developed through exposure. You’ve got through your hardest days, and as the famously wise Marcus Aurelius claimed, you should “never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

“We can familiarise ourselves with the will of nature by calling to mind our common experiences,” explains Epicurus in How To Be A Stoic. “When a friend breaks a glass, we are quick to say, ‘Oh, bad luck.’ It is only reasonable, then, that when a glass of your own breaks, you accept it in the same patient spirit.”

Identify triggers

Feel yourself spiralling after a scrolling session? Wary of what tomorrow may bring after chatting to a worrywart friend? Caught up on news cycles about what we’re doing to the planet, and the potential world we’re leaving behind? Learning to locate the trigger switch marks the first lesson in your progression. For me, comparing myself to my friends (all unfalteringly fabulous and outrageously over-achieving) or family (where I have student debt, they have savings accounts) means setting myself up for failure when it comes to cultivating a ‘what will be, will be’ attitude.

There are cheesy Pinterest posts that tell us, “Don’t compare your life to others. There’s no comparison between the sun and the moon. They shine when it’s their time.” But isn’t there some truth in this? Feelings of inadequacy and stress about progress are inevitable if we continue to compete and cultivate a culture of constant comparison.

So, if you feel negative thought patterns playing out in your mind’s peripheral, be sure to sit back and take note of your potential triggers – sign off the socials, set down your phone, and sit out of that conversation with a pessimistic friend. Remember that comparing yourself to anyone else doesn’t make any sense. Pick it all up again after writing a list of reasons to be excited about your future (yours specifically, not the future in general) and righting your mindset so you’re prepared, once again, for what’s ahead.

Reframe change

By its very nature, there’s nothing comfortable about change. It can be jarring, unnerving, and ultimately a little daunting, but psychotherpist Liz Ritchie challenges us to think about all the big changes that we’ve anxiously anticipated in our lives over the years and to take a moment to focus on how many times these big shifts have ended up garnering good outcomes, rather than bad.

Telling you to adopt an optimistic outlook may seem like the oldest trick in the self-help book, but re-focusing on the positive upshots of uncertainty in our futures can equip us to face change more effectively. When I asked Tropic founder and CEO, Susie Ma, to tell me about a big change she’d experienced recently that had scared her, I could tell she had a good answer. “Most people are terrified of change, aren’t they?” she asks. “It’s probably a well-worn trope in your piece already, but I can’t talk about trying to navigate a new way of working without mentioning the pandemic. When we were sent home with our work gear and advised to adapt to a life behind our laptops, I have to admit I was worried we wouldn’t be equipped to evolve fast enough.”

“The business had been through a lot, but nothing compared to this level of upheaval,” she explains. “But, like any change I’d ever feared before, it bolstered the business and changed how we operate for the better, with communication across the company becoming more effective than ever before! We moved from email and meetings at HQ to instant messaging and video calling from wherever we were in the world at any time. I guess the takeaway is that more often than not, there are positives that arise from being forced to adapt, otherwise we become stagnant.”

Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor, wrote: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” You may not have the ability to control change, but you do have the ability to control how that change affects you – you are the only one with this control, so make sure you use your power wisely.

“If you’re told big changes are taking place at work which may disturb your day-to-day,” says Dr McClymont, “try to think, ‘will it serve me to spend time dwelling on what this might mean? Will I gain more from thinking about the present moment, preparing for the future but leaving the stress to someone else?”

Future-shaping changes can be shouldered more confidently when approached with an open mind, when we practice resilience, and learn to swerve situations which only serve to trigger us. If a big shift is casting shadow over your future, channel Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations once more, and “be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.”

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