We all have worries and anxieties. Sometimes we worry how we’ll get through today. But a lot of our heart pounding, “I’ll never be able to do it” anxiety is about things that may never happen. Worries we have created in our minds. When we do this too often, we can even pull ourselves into depression, because we believe the weight of tomorrow is just too much to bear.
These future anxieties can be divided into two groups: those which cause us to obsess over possible worldwide disasters, and those in which we imagine personal disasters crashing down on our heads. While worrying about the fate of the universe can be upsetting, our personal fears usually cause us the most pain. Deep down the knowledge that the sun will burn out in a billion years or so is not half as worrying as knowing we have to give a speech a few months out, or we must attend a social event that makes us feel sick just thinking about it.
First, separate the worry from the reality.
At the beginning I mentioned how we worry about things that may never happen. An event or situation in our future may be real but our negative expectation to it doesn’t have to be. Dread has no place on our daily agenda.
Take a few moments to listen to whatever your worry is telling you. If you hear a lot of “what ifs,” those are the easiest to put aside. Things like, “what if I have a flat tire on the way to giving the speech? What if I mix up the date and arrive on the wrong day? What if the waitress drops a plate of food in my lap right before I get up to speak?”
How likely are any of these to happen? Not very. So one helpful trick to scare away these “what if” questions is to make them as outrageous as possible. Outrageous enough to make you laugh. “What if the waitress drops a plate of spaghetti on my head, and I trip over the microphone cord and land in the punch bowl.” Then see yourself laughing at your disaster, and everyone else enjoying the fun.
Imagining such a disaster, and making it funny can relieve a lot of stress and anxiety. It may also tell you if it is not the public speaking, for example, that is really worrying you. If your imagined fears are mostly of outside factors interfering with what you want to do, then a lack of confidence is not the problem, and it is easy to also imagine yourself taking extra time to drive or walk carefully, and to take control of your outside environment.
Dismantle your expectations of falling apart.
Sometimes we never ask “what if’ questions at all. Fear hits us fast and we jump right into picturing ourselves failing in a really big way. We know it will be awful. We know we’ll forget how to do what people expect of us, or that we’ll freeze up under pressure.
Take time to imagine yourself succeeding. Athletes visualize winning long before they play a game. Ballet dancers rehearse choreography in their minds. See yourself speaking confidently, or choosing not to crumble under anyone’s critical remarks. Smile and see yourself at peace with whatever happens. See yourself in control.
Procrastinate over future worries.
When we obsess over future problems, the best way to relieve the anxiety is simply to set the worries aside. If something in your future causes you to feel stress whenever you think about it, just stop thinking. Just stop. You have time to take positive action to make a future situation better, but if there is no action you can take, worrying now does nothing except upset today.
The idea of stopping may seem difficult, but it is really much easier than it sounds. I was depressed and tying myself up in knots recently about a commitment I made for something months away. When I finally realized what I was doing to myself, I was able to simply say, “not now.” And it was done.
Fans of the books and television series, The Game of Thrones, know Sirio the sword master. While training young Arya to fight, he teaches her about facing death. He tells her all we need to say to death is “not today”.
I find that idea to be excellent for relieving anxiety about the future. Whatever lies ahead of us, real or imagined, we can always say to our worries, “not today”. Today is too precious to waste on what may never happen. All that will ever matter is what is happening now.
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