Managing Anxiety About The Future
Almost all anxiety is anxiety about the future. We worry about what’s going to happen to our health, our jobs, our relationships, and a myriad of other things. However, most anxiety is rooted in our past experiences. It is not a realistic appraisal of what might happen to us in the future.
Clients come to therapy because they’ve been unsuccessful in trying to manage their anxiety on their own. As soon as they stop worrying about one thing, they start worrying about something else. Their anxiety feels out of control and they’re looking for help alleviating it.
Is There A Common Theme For This Anxiety?
There’s not really a common theme. Some people have social anxiety. They fear criticism or ridicule in social situations. Some people have more obsessive-compulsive forms of anxiety. They worry that if they don’t do everything perfectly, something bad will happen to them. Other people just have a constant feeling of foreboding—a feeling that bad things are just around the corner.
The interesting thing about all of these forms of anxiety is that most, if not all, of the things that my clients fear, will never actually happen. In fact, these things usually happen less to my clients than they do to other people. People who have social anxiety, for example, are often so careful about how they come across to other people that they behave impeccably. No one would think to criticize them. People with more obsessive-compulsive types of anxiety perform at such a high level that the negative job evaluation they expect never materializes.
Even though the bad things my clients anticipate tend not to happen, however, their anxiety is very real. That’s because the things they’re afraid are going to happen to them are actually things that to them. People who fear criticism were usually criticized as children. Perfectionists usually experienced a significant amount of disapproval from their parents or other adults. These experiences were so painful that they’ll do anything to avoid experiencing them again. And, because these experiences were such a predictable part of their childhood, they assume that they’re just a predictable part of adult life, as well.
This is why two of the ways people often use for managing their anxiety by themselves usually don’t work. People often try to calm themselves by reassuring themselves that what they’re afraid will happen isn’t really going to happen. This often works in the short term. Someone might reassure herself about an upcoming evaluation at work by reminding herself that she actually has a good relationship with her boss. However, the next time she experiences anxiety, she has to go through this process all over again. The process of continually trying to put out the fires of anxiety becomes exhausting.
The other way people try to reassure themselves is to tell themselves that their fears are irrational. They tell themselves that there’s no real basis for being afraid of talking to people at parties or for needing to check five times to see that they’re turned off the stove before they leave for work.
There are two problems with this approach. First of all, these fears aren’t irrational. They’re based on actual experiences. In addition, telling yourself that you’re constantly being irrational just makes you feel like there’s even more that’s wrong with you than you thought there was. Not only are you anxious, you’re irrational to boot!
So, Anxiety is a Learned Behavior?
It is. We learn about the world from the people who are closest to us. I once had a client whose family would visit relatives in the Midwest every summer. As soon as the family got back from vacation, my client’s mother would insist that all the children write thank-you notes immediately. She convinced them that, if they didn’t write a thank-you note within a week, their relatives would never invite them to visit again. Not surprisingly, my client grew up with the fear that, if she didn’t do everything perfectly, people would reject her. Therapy helped her to recognize that these fears never actually materialized. They were the product of her mother’s anxiety, not realistic assessments of the strength of her relationships.
So What Can Be Done?
Once people are able to identify the true source, managing anxiety becomes much easier. This isn’t always an easy process. It can be difficult to let go of assumptions we’ve held our entire lives. And to recognize how much pain they’ve caused us. But, in the end, it’s important to recognize that most anxiety is about what has happened, rather than what’s going to happen. This frees people from the constant fear that something is about to go wrong. They can face the future with hope and confidence. And, because they’re not spending so much energy trying to prevent imagined catastrophes, they find they are much more resilient in the face of the actual crises that occur in life.
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Jane Rubin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California. She works with individuals in Berkeley, Oakland, the East Bay and the greater San Francisco Bay Area who are struggling with depression and anxiety. She also specializes in working with people who are trying to find meaning and direction in their lives.