Most people worry about the future at some point in their lives, whether it’s their personal future or the future of the planet. It’s completely natural, but constantly thinking about the future can distract us from living in the moment. But how do you stop?
Worrying is often a habit, so stopping is a conscious decision. The best way to deal with worrying is to take a proactive approach and take control of your thoughts. From mindfulness approaches to conscious planning, there are plenty of ways to stop the worry train and focus on the things you can do for your future instead of simply thinking about it.
In this article, I’ll take a look at why we worry and how to stop worrying about the future.
Why do we worry?
I have always been a worrier. Right now, I am planning a field trip for my students and as expected, I’m constantly finding new things to worry about. Is the weather going to be okay? Is the trip too expensive if we do a sleepover? But if we drive back at night, will the students get home safe?
And when I’m not worrying about specific things, I’m worried about the future in general.
You probably have your own examples of worrying over things that are big or small, vague or specific, immediate or still far ahead. But why do we worry?
Worried thinking is aimed at potential future dangers or threats and can be considered an attempt to avoid or cope with them. In other words, worrying is normal and should help us prepare for future challenges. For example, a 2013 article found that habitual worry over climate change is a perfectly normal response to an abnormal situation.
However, worrying can be dysfunctional and do more harm than good when it becomes repetitive or persistent, or when we find ourselves worrying over things we can’t control. In my case, worrying about the weather during the field trip is futile because the forecast isn’t accurate 3 weeks ahead of time, and even if it was, I can’t control the weather anyway.
Worrying can also take up precious cognitive resources that could be put to other use. A 2017 study reports that active worrying impairs working memory capacity. According to a 2013 article, both worrying and rumination are associated with reduced cognitive control, making it more difficult for high-worriers and high-ruminators to switch between internal representations in working memory.
Why do some people worry more than others?
I’m a worrier, but luckily I have friends who are more chill and relaxed. On some level, these differences may come down to personality: for example, a 2014 study reports that people who score higher on neuroticism worry more in daily life and generate more worry-related thoughts after being presented with a worry-inducing sentence.
According to a 2015 study, this relationship between personality traits and worrying can be explained by individual differences in tolerance of uncertainty. People who have lower tolerance for uncertainty tend to worry more as a coping mechanism.
Another study from 2015 reports tentative evidence or verbal intelligence being a positive predictor of both worry and rumination. In other words, people who are more verbally intelligent also worry more.
4 methods to stop worrying about the future
This may make it seem like worrying is uncontrollable and there’s nothing you can do if you were born a worrier. Luckily, worrying can be controlled and knowing how to do it is especially important when you’re prone to worrying. Here are 4 actionable tips on how to stop worrying about the future.
1. Be mindful
Research shows that mindfulness practices are effective ways to stop worrying. For example, a 2010 article reports that mindfulness is effective in reducing chronic worry. Since mindfulness is all about staying consciously in the moment and focusing on the here and now, it couldn’t be more different from anxious worrying about the future.
To calm your mind, you can try focusing on your breathing to stay in the moment with these breathing exercises. If you’re looking for a more immersive experience, you can try this guided meditation from Inner Space.
2. Move your body
Turns out that a good way to get out of your head is to get moving. A 2016 study found that physical exercise was just as effective in reducing worrying as mindfulness meditation. According to the authors, physical exercise leads to mindful awareness:
We also expect that during physical activity, there is little attention space for thinking and rumination and thus greater here and now attention. Furthermore, physical exercise in this study sometimes took place outside, and contact with nature and simply the physical sensations of warmth and cold, humidity and dry, etc., may have enhanced present moment awareness.
So the next time you find yourself worrying about the future, try going for a run, hitting the gym, or doing some yoga.
3. Focus on what you can control
Worrying is related to trying to prepare for the future, but this means that we can sometimes worry over things we have no control over. A good way to reduce or stop worrying altogether is to start paying close attention to the things you worry about and dividing them into three categories:
- Things you can control
- Things you can influence
- Things you have no control or influence over
Learning to accept the things in the third category and focusing on the first two will bring you peace of mind.
In fact, we recently studied how many people feel like they can control their happiness. Our study found that people who feel in control of their happiness are 32% happier than those who don’t.
4. Set goals and plan your steps
Once you’ve separated the things you can control from the ones you can’t, it’s important to take a proactive approach towards your future. Setting clear goals and working towards them is the only way you can control what your future will look like.
When setting goals, it’s a good idea to use the SMART rule. A good goal is:
Once you have your goal, plan the steps you have to take towards it. Ideally, the first step should be something you can do in the next 24 hours. In my personal experience, the 24-hour trick is especially helpful for making me really feel in control.
And as we learned from our own study, feeling in control can already increase your happiness with up to 32%!
Worrying is normal and it can have its uses, but there can be too much of a good thing. When worrying has become a habit, the best course of action is to take a conscious and proactive approach towards your own thoughts. Try mindfulness techniques to stay present, focus on what you can control and set conscious goals to break the habit of worrying. Not only will these techniques help you reduce worrying, but they will also help you create the future you want.
What do you think? Do you find one particular tactic more efficient in your quest to stop worrying? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!