What kind of thoughts make you anxious?
Anxiety comes from 3 primary sources:
Negative thoughts about the future
Unfamiliar sensations in the body
Or, the uncertainty of not knowing what's going to happen next
This article focuses on negative thoughts about the future
Do you recognize any of the following common anxieties?
I might screw up my presentation tomorrow and then my boss will fire me.
I had a fight with my partner, and now he's going to break up with me. I'll be all alone again.
Three bills arrived in the mail today. I'll never be able to pay them all, and I'll end up homeless.
I haven't studied enough for my exam. I'm going to fail the test and won't be able to graduate.
It's 3 AM, and I can't stop thinking of all the bad things that might happen tomorrow.
There's a new mole on my arm. It must be cancer. Maybe the cancer has already spread.
I've been up all night worrying. I'm never going to get any sleep.
It's not just you. All of us, including me, experience these worries. It's what we do with these thoughts that matters.
Fortunately, there are solutions
None of these tricks are simple. They all require practice, but if you stick to your practice, you will start to notice a big difference.
3 Ways to Address Anxiety About The Future
Exercise 1: Notice You Are Breathing
When thoughts are racing through our head, it's easy to get caught up in them. One thought leads to another, then another, and then another. Think of it as a runaway anxiety train.
It's helpful to get off the train, and it's easier than you would think to do so.
Next time you sense your caught up in Endless thoughts try these 3 steps
Acknowledge to yourself that you are on the anxiety train. Don't be self critical. Just acknowledge it.
Find your breath. You might notice breathing sensations as the air goes in and out of your nose and mouth, or you might notice the movement of your breath in the up and down rhythm of your diaphragm.
Try to stay with your breath. Quietly label the in-breaths "in" and the out-breaths "out." See if you can stay there for a few breaths or even several minutes.
Congratulations! Just by acknowledging the breath and tracking it, you've interrupted your train of thoughts.
At some point, your mind will try to distract you again. That's ok. If you find yourself distracted by the runaway thoughts, then start over with step one.
Don't judge yourself or think you're failing if you get distracted by thoughts. It's only natural that you will get distracted from time to time. Our brains are built to be always on.
As long as you eventually recognize the distraction and go back to watching your breath, you're doing it right.
Exercise 2: Think Opposite Thoughts
If you look closely at your anxious thoughts, you will notice that most of the time it's predictions about the future that make us anxious.
This bad thing is going to happen, and that bad thing is going to happen, etc., etc.
We call these thoughts negative predictions, because our mind seems to always take us to the worst case scenario, causing you to feel more anxiety.
For many people, it is helpful to think of positive predictions, too.
Fight negative predictions with positive predictions
Follow these steps to counter a negative prediction
Recognize you are anxious and identify any negative predictions you are making. An example might be, "I'm going to fail an exam tomorrow."
If that's the worst that could happen, then try to imagine what the best thing that could happen. For example, "I'll surprise myself and get an A+ on the exam."
What is the probability that the good thing will happen? (20%? 40%?) What is the probability that the bad thing will happen? (10%? 30%?) What is the probability that something in the middle of those two options will happen? (50%)
Good work! Now you have a sense of perspective, and perhaps the future doesn't seem quite as bleak now.
You don't need to banish the negative prediction. Usually, it is a relief just to know there are other possibilities that aren't as disastrous.
Sometimes, people assign a 99% likelihood to the worst case scenario. If that happens to you, try to explore the 1% chance that something else will happen.
Exercise 3: Can You predict The Future?
We noticed a moment ago that anxiety producing thoughts are often negative predictions about the future.
Our predictions about what will happen in the future are fantasies created in our mind.
Even though the prediction is fantasy, our mind reacts as though the fantasy is already true. Our muscles may become tense, we may start perspiring, our skin may feel hot or flushed.
So although our predictions about the future are fantasy, our negative predictions about the future cause real life stress.
What is it like to realize that your thoughts are creating your anxiety?
Interrupt negative predictions with a reality check
Another way to interrupt negative predictions is to ask yourself if you can predict the future.
When you recognize you are making negative predictions about the future, acknowledge to yourself, "I am making a negative prediction about the future."
Then, ask yourself, "Can I Predict the Future?"
If the answer is no, then ask yourself if you can just stay curious about what might happen next.
If the answer is yes, then I challenge you to write down the predictions you are making in moments of anxiety and review the list tomorrow evening to see how many of the predictions came true.
Good effort! This exercise takes several tries to sink in. But once you get good at it, you'll notice you worry a lot less about things you can't control.
Reminding yourself that you can't predict the future is a strategy for interrupting the endless loop of anxiety provoking thoughts.
Once you realize you can't predict the future, then your challenge is to stay curious.
"I wonder what will happen next. I don't know what will happen. Something good might happen, and my worry may have been for naught. Something bad may happen, but I know that I have solved tough problems in the past, and it hasn't been the end of the world."
If you're having trouble handling your anxiety, and the things you try at home aren't working, then contact me and we can talk about you anxiety and find ways to help you feel more relaxed and at ease in the world.
Click the red button to find four easy ways to contact Brian.