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How to Stop Worrying About the Future, from Distracting Yourself to Embracing Your Anxiety

Billie Eilish may be in love with her future, but for some of us, thinking about what’s to come us out. The good news is worrying about the future is normal. A lot of people do it. In fact, anxiety about what comes next can actually protect us from danger and help us make smarter decisions. However, when worry becomes all-consuming and negatively impacts daily life, it’s time to make some changes. While you may not be able—and it may not be wise—to stop worrying about the future completely, you can decrease the amount of time spent doing so by staying in the moment, changing thought patterns and redefining what it means to control a situation.

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Why do we worry about the future?

According to Samantha Gambino, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in New York City, people worry about the future because it’s an unknown they can’t control. Dr. Gambino specializes in anxiety, stress management and wellness, so she’s seen her fair share of clients grappling with these fears. “Humans like to be in control,” she tells us. “Your brain does not like unknowns and tries to predict what will happen in the future. Your brain wants to plan so you can feel safe and be prepared.”

The problem is, human brains tend to give in to catastrophic thinking, also known as imagining the worst-case scenario. We don’t go easy on ourselves. Suddenly, in addition to normal stress over the unknown, we’re picturing terrifying outcomes. The result not only makes us feel powerless, it hinders positive decision-making. Not fun!

Sometimes, it feels helpful to worry. “Worry often tricks us into thinking we have control when we are feeling uncertain or unsafe,” says Melissa Milbert, a licensed professional counselor. “For some people, worry becomes part of daily life and normal thought patterns out of self-protection.” It’s worth noting many things we can’t control contribute to this cycle, like genetics and upbringing.

Some worrying is a good thing

Dr. Gambino reminds her clients that worrying about the future can be a good thing—in moderation. “A little bit of worry is good and can mobilize you to take action,” she says. “It allows us to be aware of what is happening and brainstorm how to be prepared or possible courses of action.” This is known as productive worrying.

But if worrying about the future becomes overwhelmingly intense or leaves you in what Dr. Gambino calls “a chronic state of stress and fear,” you’re probably experiencing unproductive worrying.

How to stop worrying about the future

Completely eliminating anxiety about the future isn’t always possible. Building coping skills to deal with it in a healthy way, is. Coping skills should reduce how often and how intensely worry affects you. If nothing else, your goal could simply be to develop more productive worrying habits.

“Broadly speaking, there are two types of coping strategies: solution-focused coping and emotion-focused coping,” says Dr. Nicole Amoyal Pensak, a clinical psychologist and the owner of Atlantic Coast Mind & Body in New Jersey. “Plan what’s in your control and get your mind off of what you can’t control.” Dr. Pensak says this approach applies to both short term and long-term stressors.

When browsing our list of ways to stop worrying about the future, we encourage you to combine solution-focused and emotion-focused coping methods. Some might not work for you, which is totally okay.

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1. Get good sleep

Nearly every expert we consulted touted the importance of good sleeping habits. Getting better sleep starts with eating sleep-friendly foods, developing a sleep routine and maybe upgrading your mattress.

2. Exercise

Nothing keeps you in the moment like running on a treadmill or trying to hold a 30 second plank. “Exercise is a way to calm your mind,” says Dr. Gambino. “The endorphins that are released serve as a mood boost and help you think more clearly. When we think more clearly, we can slow things down and reason. Being rational helps you stay focused, grounded, and less worried about the future.” Remember, our brains and our bodies are inextricably linked. Regulating one helps regulate the other.

3. Deep breathing

Breathing deeply and focusing on your breath is an excellent way to bring yourself back to the present, no matter where you are. Take five to ten deep, slow breaths and focus on nothing other than the air moving in and out of your lungs. Close your eyes if you can. Don’t think about anything other than your breath and the present moment.

4. Meditation

Take deep breathing to the next level with meditation. You don’t have to sit there for an hour (unless you want to!). Start small and work up to longer stretches.

5. Connect with other people

You are not the only one who worries about the future, we guarantee it. Being able to discuss your fears with friends and family members you trust can be a great way to vent and then get back to daily life. Warning: Don’t connect with those whose negative attitudes leave you feeling drained. Surround yourself with people who leave you feeling energized, or at the very least, lighter than before.

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6. Stop doom scrolling

It isn’t going to solve any problems and it wastes time.

7. Separate new experiences from the past

It’s easy to assume disaster will strike again if it struck once before. Instead of all-or-nothing thinking (“All my flights get canceled!”), try more nuanced thinking (“My last flight got canceled. I’ve had on-time flights before. This upcoming flight might just be delayed.”).

8. Set a timer

Talia Bombola, a certified psychodynamic licensed marriage and family therapist, suggests giving in to worry—with a time limit. “Time yourself for three minutes and worry as much as you possibly can,” she says. “Take yourself to the worst-case scenario that you’re worrying about and then ask yourself, ‘Is this the most likely and probable outcome?’ The answer is often no.”

9. Try the Four Elements Technique

Another way to keep your mind in the present is by using the Four Elements Grounding Technique. Rebecca Phillips, a licensed professional counselor at Mend Modern Therapy says this involves connecting your mind and body to earth, water, air and fire by doing the following:

  • Earth: Notice your feet on the ground beneath you or your seat in the chair. Reinforce the reality of safety that exists in the present moment.
  • Water: Drink some water. This turns on your relaxation response through your digestive system.
  • Air: Use your breath to center you. Imagine slowly filling up a balloon in your belly as you inhale and deflating the balloon even more slowly as you exhale.
  • Fire: Imagine a place that feels warm, safe and calm. Visualize the space and notice the sense of warmth around you.

10. Or the five senses technique

Similarly, Dr. Gambino recommends checking in with all five senses. “One way to stay present is to use your five senses to notice your environment. Is there something colorful or pretty that you see? Notice the sounds and smells around you. Are there birds chirping? What else do you hear? What about taste? Is there a tactile experience? All of these observations will help you stay focused on the present moment.”

Another way to tackle this is by counting down from five. Think about five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell and one thing you taste.

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11. Keep a journal

Keeping a journal is a great way to express your fears and either let them go or relieve yourself of them for a while. Dr. Gambino also says a journaling routine provides structure to your day, which signals to your brain that you’ve done your worrying and can move on with other responsibilities.

12. Take note of your thoughts

“Notice your self-talk. Are you predicting the worst-case scenario? Are you catastrophizing?” asks Dr. Gambino. Being able to recognize when your thoughts go off the rails and into worrying is the first step to stalling and changing them.

13. Flip the script

Once you catch a thought, try re-writing it. Instead of “This horrible thing will happen,” try out best-case scenarios or middle-of-the-road scenarios. Dr. Phillips calls this flipping the script. “When we worry, it’s like we write an entire movie script in our head. We may make all kinds of assumptions and imagine worst-case scenarios. Spend some time rewriting the script to something neutral or positive. Chances are, what actually happens will be somewhere in between your worst and best-case scenario.”

14. Give yourself a positive mantra

A positive mantra to revert to when you notice worry creeping in can help reorient you in the present. Something confidence boosting like, “I am smart and capable,” or grounding like, “I am here, I am alive,” is ideal.

15. Control what you can

No matter how much we worry, we cannot change the future. What we do change is our experience in the present. To regain control of the future, find something you can control in a healthy way. Cleaning, drawing, playing music, pampering yourself - these are all positive methods of controlling and enjoying the present.

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16. Find a distraction

Healthy distractions are enormously effective if your anxiety is unusually intense. Reading a gripping book, watching a favorite show or playing a thought-provoking game are great ways to distract yourself from the future and stay in the present.

17. Prioritize

Identify what items on your to-do list need immediate attention. What can wait until next week? Next month? Next year?! Is there anything you can start now and work on in tiny increments?

18. Embrace the anxious parts of yourself

Again, anxiety can serve us in some instances. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. Bombola has actually named her anxiety and says hello when it arrives. “The skill is called Name It to Tame It,” she says. “My anxiety’s name is Carl, and whenever I have a ‘worry thought’ or feel anxious, I pretend Carl is standing next to me and I ask him why he’s here. Befriending your anxiety lessens it because you’re paying attention and in the moment with them.”

19. Identify short- and long-term goals

Dr. Gambino encourages people to try to understand what drives their anxiety in order to set personal and professional goals. “For example, are you afraid of failure, and does this cause you to worry about the future? Understanding the underlying issue is the long-term solution to managing your anxiety,” she says.

20. Enlist the help of a professional

All of the experts on this list are trained to help people struggling with worries about the future. Meeting regularly with a therapist is a great way to check in on your anxious feelings and build coping skills that work for you.