The term “future anxiety” refers to stress about the future. While having some anxiety about the future can be motivating and positive, too much of it can be problematic. Future anxiety can be linked to over-planning and the need for control. Likewise, it is a stressor that can influence drug use and addiction.
Over-planning for the future can cause individuals to get lost in the minutiae of tasks, resulting in unfinished work, unreached goals, and greater anxiety. Mindfulness-based practices are the best counter to over-planning and future anxiety because they instruct how to live in the moment, the very act often being avoided by future planning.
Where Does Future Anxiety Come From?
Future anxiety stems from the avoidance of stressors and difficult emotions. Being able to sit in the present moment can be uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable feels vulnerable. The impulse to avoid this discomfort makes sense; by focusing on what comes next, we don’t have to look at what is happening right now. This includes what we are feeling and why. While focusing on the future can be an act of self-preservation, continuous focus on what might happen stops us from experiencing the present moment.
Over-Planning and Future Anxiety
While it’s natural to want to avoid stress, over-planning actually increases present stress and future stress in the long run. For many with substance use disorder (SUD), the urge to use drugs to escape is tied to future anxiety. Over-planning can go hand in hand with drug and alcohol use. For example, individuals who experience chronic pain or emotional distress are more likely to engage in opioid use. They are trying to escape the pain they are feeling at the moment.
In other words, future anxiety and over-planning are driven by the need for control. When things feel out of control, individuals can start hyper-focusing on areas of life or actions they can control. This allows them to avoid what feels outside their control but does not resolve the problem.
Since the problem persists, more avoidant actions need to be taken to resist engaging it. This pattern can grow into greater anxiety. Like substance use, this rewrites the impulses in the brain, creating an anxious routine that is something more than managing stress.
When Is It More Than Future Anxiety?
Stress affects every system in the body. When it is experienced, muscles tense up, respiration and heart rate are increased, stress hormones are released, the gut function is stimulated or disrupted, and the body is shifted into its “fight or flight” response. These changes are evolutionarily developed to help you protect yourself. However, chronic stress results in their overstimulation and results in the body over-preparing when situations are not stressful.
When future anxiety becomes an all-encompassing worry, it may be diagnosed as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is characterized by a constant state of worry, fear, or dread. It develops slowly, but it is treatable. It can be accompanied by symptoms such as sweating, frequent urination, and headaches, among others. It is treated with psychotherapy and medication. The same coping tools that work for future anxiety and over-planning can be used for GAD.
Coping With Future Anxiety
Meditation and mindfulness-based practices work to help you stay in the present moment. Meditation focuses on dismissing judgment from the thoughts that arrive during practice. Rather, you label them as what they are as they arrive and work to move back into a state of stillness. This can be a tremendous help when you are combatting anxious thinking. Meditation also helps you practice staying still and in your body in the present moment.
Other mindfulness-based practices include yoga, other forms of repetitive exercise, and creative pursuits, such as art or music therapy. The latter is rooted in self-expression, a necessarily reflective act. Drawing attention to when discomfort is felt and why helps you identify triggers to the anxiety you are experiencing and address them at their root.
Future anxiety can also be managed through coping techniques you can practice at home. When you find yourself consumed by stress or over-planning, try the following:
- Perform a task you enjoy. This doesn’t need to be productivity-based. You can listen to music, take a shower, or go for a walk. Keep your attention on what you are doing in order to interrupt the pattern of stress.
- Connect with a friend. Talking to a loved one reinforces community and moves your thinking out of isolation. Also, a friend can offer support.
- Say no. This can be difficult to ask because you are likely saying “yes” to too much. Over-committing accompanies over-planning, but saying no helps you practice not adding new items to your to-do list.
- Replace negative thoughts with positive statements. When you catch yourself in a pattern of negative thinking, select one thought and rephrase it in a positive way. If you went to the gym but didn’t complete the exercises you planned, instead of thinking, “I didn’t do enough,” change your focus to the fact that you made it to the gym at all. Sometimes getting out the door is the hardest part. Recognizing what you are achieving can go a long way toward giving yourself grace.
Future anxiety stems from the avoidance of stressors that may have a positive impact on your life. If you are over-planning, it may be time to look at what you are avoiding and work to discover why. Focusing on the future prevents you from engaging in the present and can contribute to greater stress by causing you to get lost in the details, ultimately falling behind on what you have scheduled to accomplish. This, in turn, increases anxiety because you are never reaching the future you are looking toward. This can be a key factor in substance use disorder. Call West Coast Recovery Centers at (760) 492-6509 to learn how to cope with future anxiety.