If you’re a chronic worrier, chances are, you’re worrying about something right now. And there’s a good reason for that. Evolutionary theories provide insight into why we worry, and scientific research reveals why some of us worry more than others.
- 1 Why do we worry?
- 2 1. Get things into perspective
- 3 2. Small steps to big goals
- 4 3. Make a plan backed by ‘what if’s’
- 5 4. Fight or flight
- 6 5. Get creative
- 7 6. Write it down, talk it through, or sweat it out
- 8 7. What helped me in the past?
- 9 8. Daily gratitude list
- 10 9. A note from your future self
Why do we worry?
From an evolutionary perspective, chronic worriers had a huge advantage—anxiety kept our ancestors away from danger, allowing them to survive and reproduce.
A heightened level of fear activates our fight or flight response, motivates us to seek safety, and prepares us for the worst case scenario.
It’s no wonder we worry. But this same fear our ancestors felt over seeing a wild predator eyeing them off now translates to our modern lives on a daily basis. The worry becomes irrational, and for some us, debilitating, influencing the way we view ourselves, our happiness and our health.
Worrying about the future is a common and chronic issue, putting people in a position of angst that prohibits them from living in the moment. The future is unpredictable, and it’s this fear of uncertainty that gets us.
And interestingly, while some people feel a sense of fear or anxiousness over uncertainty, others are actually excited by it. And with the knowledge that our brains cannot distinguish between feeling excited and nervous, is it possible we can shift our fear of the future to a state of excitement for the possibilities that lie ahead?
Most importantly, how do we channel our fear of the future so that we can live in the now? Here are 9 steps to help you STOP worrying about the future:
1. Get things into perspective
Will this matter a year from now? Five years from now? If not, it’s not worth worrying about. Save yourself the energy for something worth your time.
But, we get it. It’s easier said than done, especially when you feel like your world is crumbling in that moment.
It helps to start with a few deep breaths to get yourself in check. Then, get outside and go for a walk. Breathe in the fresh air, let the sunlight wash over your skin and take in the new sights and smells around you. Really think about the sensations and become aware of them. This is a form of mindfulness that can take your mind off your stressors and bring you back to reality. You’re here, in this place, at this time. Hopefully, whatever is bothering you will start to feel a little smaller.
If not, try listening to some music to get you into a different head-space—experiment to see what works for you.
Lastly, to stop something from spiralling into a larger issue, ask yourself what you would say to a friend in the same situation. Often, we feel our situation is so unique to what others experience, which is simply not true. No one has the perfect life. You might have one problem that someone else has all figured out for themselves. But the best aspect of your life might be that person’s weakness—you never know.
2. Small steps to big goals
The future can be (understandably) overwhelming in that there are so many possibilities that could unfold. “You only have one shot at it”, they say. Life is no experiment. So, how do you know which path to take? How do you have all the answers?
You don’t. No one does. And the sooner you start to accept this, the more fun you can start having. The second thing to consider is what you actually want out of your life. If this is too big a question, begin by asking yourself what your life is lacking. Do you want more time for spending with family or kids? More money to travel? A new lifestyle? Your own business?
Whatever your goal, write it down or memorise it and then break it down into small steps. Don’t stress yourself out with big plans for the future but no direction on how to make them happen.
Understanding that targets are not met instantaneously is the first step to achievement. It allows you time to live in the present, with a solid plan in the back of your mind, minus the worrying about why you’re not getting anywhere overnight.
3. Make a plan backed by ‘what if’s’
A good way to tackle an immediate problem, like handling a toxic friendship, stressful deadlines at work or making a pressing decision around your health, is to analyse it by asking a series of ‘what if’s’.
For example, what if you end the toxic friendship and later regret it. What if you try and reach out again, only to be rejected. Keep asking yourself what will happen if X happens, until you no longer have any ‘what if’s’. Seeing different possibilities play out, and knowing your worst case scenario can help you make an important decision and be prepared. Well, as prepared as you can be. This will hopefully instill confidence in your decision, and allow you to successfully manage whatever ends up happening.
4. Fight or flight
Have you ever noticed that not making a difficult decision can cause much more anxiety than actually biting the bullet and doing something? Even if it’s the ‘wrong’ decision, you’ll likely feel a sense of relief and closure from progressing and moving on. When facing a major life change, or a difficult time in our lives, we often come to a dead end; forcing us to react with a fight or flight response.
If we fight, we try and resolve the issue at hand. If we fly, we leave the issue. Each situation will warrant one or the other, and there is no right or wrong. Take your love life, for instance. In one person’s case, a lost love may be worth fighting for and rekindling. In another case, someone might notice that they’re actually happier without their ex-partner and therefore better off on their own.
The bottom line—don’t dwell in a situation for too long without making a decision. We’re not encouraging you to be rash, but often, our gut feeling knows best. Take time to evaluate the pros and cons and then do what makes sense to you. You’ll feel so much better once you’ve moved on from that limbo stage, and at least know what the next step involves.
5. Get creative
Studies have revealed connections between physically creating things with our hands and decreased stress, anxiety and depression. Home projects, DIY and art-making can promote relaxation and take your mind off of whatever is troubling you.
Though this may be more of a short-term fix, discovering a new hobby to fall back on can improve well-being and confidence over time, and provide an escape whenever you feel yourself worrying about the future.
6. Write it down, talk it through, or sweat it out
Sometimes, we get so overwhelmed, we can’t even think straight about the future. Whether you feel like you’re going nowhere, you’re not sure which path to take, or simply feel like you have no future, cut yourself some slack.
If you’re in hysterics over something, you’re simply not thinking straight—and you definitely don’t have the capacity to make any decisions worth counting on. So, before you even start to think about your future, goals, problems—talk your worries out with a trusted friend or family member. If talking isn’t your thing, write it all down. Even better, sweat it out at the gym! We all know exercise is great for clearing the mind and releasing feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin.
Then, revisit the problem with a fresh perspective.
7. What helped me in the past?
It’s probably not the first time you’ve had something to worry about, so what got you through in the past? No one will be able to answer this but YOU. And your answer will likely have a high success rate—if something has helped you before, it’s worth a shot again.
Draw on what you’ve learned from past experience that gave you the strength needed to carry on.
Is it a particular quote, song or story? Is it a pattern or trend you’ve noticed? It it something you’ve been taught or had exposure to? A supportive friend or family member that knows you well and gives great advice? Don’t underestimate your resilience. Draw from your previous experience if you ever feel stuck.
8. Daily gratitude list
If you’re feeling stressed about the future, stop and think about the wonderful things in your life at present. We often get caught up in ‘what if’s’, and we see problems in our lives spiralling and impacting our life ahead. But don’t stress so much that you forget to reflect on the great things you’ve already got going for you.
Write a list, daily if possible, of all the things you’re grateful for. Whether that’s a friend, a job, food on the table or sunny weather. Studies have shown that gratitude improves mental and physical health. Update your list as often as possible so you always have the positive parts of your life front of mind.
9. A note from your future self
Think back to 5 years ago. What have you since learned that you wish you knew back then? What do you wish you let go of sooner, and what should you have cherished more?
Hopefully, this reflection will help you to quit worrying about the future, and enjoy today, because life is too short to miss precious moments. While some of us are naturally more inclined to worry (and that’s okay), there are ways you can reduce your time worrying.
Hopefully these tips have helped to put things in perspective—they don’t substitute professional advice or treatment, so ensure you see a doctor or mental health practitioner if you feel your worries are not manageable.
We’ll leave you now with a few notes from people, just like you, telling their 25-year-old selves what they wish they knew back then.
“I used to feel like the odd one because I was constantly off to something new once I felt comfortable with tasks I was doing. However, it was through those pivots in my career that I finally discovered the sweet spot where I could not only make an income, but have an impact and do it with ease.
Advice I’d give my younger self is to define, then own and communicate your point of difference from the beginning rather than trying to fit in and get burnt out.”
Director – Head Coach
“My advice would be “TRUST YOUR GUT.” I don’t think I’ve ever had a situation where my instinct was wrong. I’ve been screwed over financially by clients I wasn’t sure about, but took on for the money. I’ve dated people I felt weird about but everyone told me they were a good choice. I’ve given up things I wanted because it was ‘silly’ or ‘a waste of time’ in other people’s minds – only to revisit them years later and find out they were brilliant for me as a person.”
Founder & Director
“I turned 30 at the start of the year and the biggest lesson I have learnt is that I am way more resilient than I could have ever imagined. If I had known at 21 the challenges I would go through running a business I probably would never have started my company and that would have been a shame because I actually like the person I am now way more than my 21-year-old self. I am stronger, smarter and understand what is actually important to me.
If I could go back I would tell my 25-year-old self to not be afraid to ask for help. You can still be independent and strong but seek advice and guidance from those around you. Going through tough times forced me to ask for help and now I am surrounded by an amazing group of family, friends, peers, mentors and advisors who have all supported me to achieve the life I have today.”
Founder of Exodus Wear
“I spent my late teens, twenties and a good part of my thirties (I am a few days from 40 now) accumulating: friends, girlfriends, awards and compliments, then degrees and lines on my résumé, followed by clothes, cars, suits and ties—then nicer cars, girls, a taste for good wine and more compliments, and of course, money—but more importantly, power. And the reasons for having more of both; excuses for why I didn’t have enough of either…
Until one day, a day like every other (a Tuesday, I think it was), I began to lose things: First my wife, then months later a loved one I had known since birth, and finally, by the end of the year, a career I spent my lifetime diligently sculpting into a tight-margined one page curriculum vitae. It took three years to start feeling something again. I thought I was numb during all that time, but I was, in fact, freed.
I remember being told in my teens by parents, in my twenties by superiors and peers, and in my thirties by me: “Don’t be carried away” by your whims and desires, and “stay grounded, my boy.” What lousy advice that was. The advice I’d give myself at 19 or even at 25 as I look down on my life now from 30,000 feet and after 39 years: Don’t accumulate. Things (and the feelings we anchor to them) weigh you down. So stay light, float away and enjoy the view from the clouds. All you’ll find in the weeds are snakes.”