How to Stop Worrying about the Future

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In this video you’re going to learn what to do when your brain just won’t shut up with all the worries about what’s going to happen in the future. I’m going to teach you one antidote for when you’re stuck ruminating on your fears, and I’ll teach you why you should never worry in your head.

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What If’s- How to Stop Worrying About the Future

I was recently working with a young man who was terrified of going to college, he was bright and very skilled academically, but the thought of leaving home and going to college terrified him. What if I fail all my classes? What if I hate my roommates? What if I can’t find my way around campus? What if I don’t stick to my budget and run out of money? What if I get depressed? What if I’m too anxious? What if, what if, what if.
And he spent so much time worrying all summer that he had practically convinced himself to not go to college in the fall. And besides that, he just felt anxious and sick to his stomach all the time. And he put a ton of energy into trying not to worry and trying not to feel anxious- which of course, made things worse.
Do you worry so much about the future?
Do all the thoughts of what could go wrong constantly run through your head?
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Good Worry vs. Bad Worry

A Little worry is ok. Worry serves a function. Beneficial worry prompts action, it can help us plan for the future by thinking through possible problems and their solutions.
But compulsive worry makes us feel sick and freeze up
When we imagine danger our body has the exact same physiological reaction as if there was real danger present. That’s why your body pumps out adrenaline when you’re safe at home watching a scary movie. And when we’re stuck in chronic worry, that can make us so anxious that we get sick or can’t function.
So my client’s brain was making him feel like he was in danger, when he was actually safe at home. And this wasn’t productive worry. Productive worry would have said “What if I can’t find my way around campus?” “Oh, let’s solve this, let’s go to campus with a map and start to practice and learn the buildings.” No, this worry was so overwhelming that he just felt like hiding, running away, and trying not to think about it.
And the tape was on constant repeat. He had accidentally developed a habit of obsessively worrying about things.

1. The Antidote to Worry is the Power of Attention

So let’s talk about one antidote. But first- let’s all take a deep breath. A calm body leads to a calm mind. So before we try to change our thinking, I encourage you to do some grounding activity.
Ok the antidote to worry is the power of attention, our ability to choose where we pay attention and what thoughts we put our focus on, what we bring to mind. This is a skill that can be strengthened with mindfulness, but I’m not going to teach you some hypothetical exercise but how to practice this with real-life worries.
Worry is something that we do in the present moment, but it takes our focus to the future. If you want to shift it to something more helpful, just start by noticing that you are worrying, right now in the present moment. Just say “Oh, hello worries! I notice you there.” It’s like if your worries were your hand, you’re going to step back a little and look at it. And then see what else is there. You could say “I’m going to work on what I pay attention to right now.”
You are basically trying to rewire your brain, perhaps it’s had this compulsive approach to worry, it’s made these “worry neural pathways” very broad and thick and smooth- meaning it’s easy for your brain to revert to worry as a default, but when you practice thinking in a safe and powerful way, then eventually you can train your brain to set a new default way of thinking. A new way to be happier and less anxious.
So I’m going to teach you how to redirect worry into productive action. The key is to spend time intentionally practicing positive imagery. To bring to mind what it would look like if you handled the situation well. Because when we imagine danger, we feel like we’re in danger, when we worry, we feel anxious. But when we imagine, or bring to mind thoughts of success, and safety, we feel peaceful and composed.

2. Locus of Control

It’s really important that when you do this, it’s not just imagining good things happening to you. For you to feel safe, you need to feel a belief in your ability to handle external difficulties. This is called an internal locus of control. It’s not that you have control over everything in your life, but that you focus your efforts on what is in your realm of control.
So what you’re going to do is imagine yourself facing challenges and handling them with resilience-don’t just imagine everything going perfectly, imagine yourself facing a problem and using your skills, resources, and support network to solve it.
It’s also really important to not let worry stay in your head, when you just think about worry it can run away with you. So write it down, say it out loud, make it concrete somehow. When you write things down, you can slow them down and face your worries one by one. I made a video explaining how to do this by drawing two circles on a piece of paper. So check that out to learn more. Click here to view the video, “Locus of Control
So- Write out a new version of your worries. With each worry that comes up, redirect your mind over and over to what is in your locus of control. What can you change? What action can you take.
Because worries might happen over and over, you will need to practice this to make it stick. So it could be helpful to record yourself speaking this script out loud and hit play. Or to draw it out- that uses your visual cortex to make this a new reality.
You might have to break your worries down into facing one at a time. Write your script and rehearse it several times a day for 10 days. Once you find yourself feeling more confident with the first one, you can repeat with another.

An Example of Guided Imagery

So for example. With this young man- A guided imagery may look like this::
I head off to college in the fall, I’m excited and nervous, but I know that I want to get an education so I’m willing to do hard things. The first worry is that I won’t know where to go. So I make sure to get to campus 30 minutes early the first day. I walk through the beautiful campus and feel the sun and see all the other excited and nervous students. I start to feel a little confused about where to go. So I pull out my map, but I’m not even sure where I am on the map. I slow down, take a deep breath, and remember that I can ask for help. I pull out my phone and use the GPS to get a general idea of where to go. As I walk toward the direction of my first class I see a nice looking student and ask her where the Harris building is, she points me in the right direction. I walk into the building and notice that there’s a room map on the wall, I follow that to find my first class, I sit down somewhere in the middle, pull out my notebook, and feel excited about my first college class.

3. Now let’s try one more guided imagery

That one might seem too easy…so let’s take the more difficult worry of “What if I fail my classes?”
Before we write out this script let’s make a long list of resources- skills, support network, etc. When you’re feeling anxious your brain isn’t very creative so try to make a list like this with a friend or therapist who has an outside perspective.
So what does this student have available to him?
  • His growth mindset- I can learn new things, I can learn new skills if I work at it.
  • His parents
  • His older brother
  • The tutoring center
  • The professor of the class
  • Other students in the class
  • Online resources- tutorials on Youtube or Khan academy
  • The ability to decrease his class load if necessary
  • The ability to retake a class until he learns it/passes. Even if he fails the class, there are still many options available to him.
  • Understand the syllabus and class requirements
  • Student services- to help with learning disabilities, accommodations, or academic advisors who can point him to other resources on campus.

Another Example of Guided Imagery for Worry

So the guided imagery could go something like this.
I’m taking Spanish 101, I took a little Spanish in high school, but within the first two weeks I’m starting to feel a little lost. Everything is moving so fast. I don’t do great on the first test and I start to panic, this is really hard I think. But then I remind myself, I can do hard things. I haven’t learned this yet, but If I put the work in and reach out to resources, I can learn Spanish. I can learn new skills to help me. So first I’m going to call my parents and see if they have any suggestions for me. They recommend that I talk with the professor. I get online and find the professor’s office hours and set up a time to meet with her. At that meeting the professor reassures me that I can learn this, she tells me about a study group that gets together to learn Spanish, and she also sets up a meeting with the TA. I start going to the study group and realize that the other students are using flash cards to memorize nouns and they’ve got a little song to help with conjugations. That’s a new study skill for me, I can learn new ways to learn. Because I’m studying a little smarter, I do better on the next test but not as well as I’d like. I meet with the TA and the TA explains to me a system for conjugation that’s helpful. I am willing to work hard. We go over the syllabus together. I make a plan for how I’m going to get all my work done. I realize that I have to study 3-4 hours a week to pass this class, I decide to drop one social activity and cut back on work hours so that I have enough time in my schedule to study, but also to take breaks when needed. I will work hard, if I continue to struggle I know who to talk with, and I plan to go to the university learning center and to my academic advisor if needed. But as I put in the study hours and work hard, I start doing better and better on each quiz. I feel more and more confident as the semester goes on. I’ve learned a system for studying and I’ve learned how to do hard things. I pass my Spanish class, and my other classes. I may not have had a perfect grade, but that’s ok, I feel proud of my accomplishment, but even more of my hard work and efforts.
Notice how this guided imagery didn’t just say “I start taking Spanish class and everything’s easy. I’m so smart. And the teacher likes me so she just gives me good grades and then I pass” this imagery is about his locus of control- the areas of his life that he can control- who he talks to, his growth mindset, how hard he’s willing to work, choosing to be careful at scheduling, etc.
When you practice the skill of choosing which thoughts you’re going to dwell on, you really can retrain your brain to worry less and to take helpful action.

4. Ask for Support/Clarity

When we are stuck in worry mode it can be hard to bring to mind safety, alternatives, positives, Anxiety literally crunches down creativity. So, it can be helpful to get another person’s perspective. Ask a safe person who you trust for their thoughts about the situation you’re worried about.

5. Put your mind to work on something else

Last- if you keep getting sucked back into worry’s spiral, choose something else you would rather be thinking about, something more important or valuable to you. So just notice those thoughts of worry, say “thanks mind” and then ask yourself “How would you like your mind to be put to work? What do you value?” So for example, if you find yourself going over and over your future fears, take a step back- make sure you’ve done your productive worry, you’ve planned what you can plan and prepared what you can prepare. Now mentally set that box of worries aside and choose something else to let your brain work on. This could be focusing on your kids, being present and mindful with them. Looking them in the eyes, setting aside all distractions, and being present with them. Or it could be something like gratitude. Start making lists of things you’re grateful for. Or it could be asking the question-who could I serve today? Who could I help out?
And then take some valued action if necessary. Choose just one thing to work on. So if you’re worried about getting lost at college, print out a map and go spend some time walking the campus. Or if you’re worried about running out of money, watch some online courses on money management. I really think managing worry is simple but not easy

Summary- How to Stop Worrying About the Future

So just to review when Dealing with Worries and “What ifs”
  • Remember: The Function of worry is to prompt helpful action
  • But this can mess us up when we get stuck ruminating on the negative. Imagined danger triggers real stress.
  • Take a moment to calm your body.
  • The Antidote is the Power of Attention-choosing how to look at the problem. I’m going to encourage you to pause this video when I finish and work through each of these steps. Start by writing down one of your worries.
  • (1)Choose to Focus on your Locus of Control-changing what you can change.
  • (2)Use the Skill of Imagery to solve problems, imagine yourself succeeding- what would that look like.
  • (3)When we are stuck in worry mode it can be hard to bring to mind safety, alternatives, positives, it can be helpful to get another person’s perspective.
  • (4)Last- if you keep getting sucked back into worry’s spiral, choose something else you would rather be thinking about, something more important or valuable to you. How would you like your mind to be put to work?
If you want more help, check out the course, Worry Free, below. 

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