Humans are constantly thinking about the future—looking forward to pleasure and dreading pain. An Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance shows us how to reduce anxious thoughts by being present in the “now”.
How to Reduce Anxious Thoughts
In our forward think, future-focused thoughts, we look forward to pleasure, trying to engineer things have pleasant experiences, and dread the pain that comes with negative outcomes. Of course, some people spend more time looking back; in general, those individuals may tend to experience depression more than anxiety. Those of us who are more anxious, look forward often.
Learn more about anxiety and fear
It turns out that all anxiety is anticipatory. Even people that are in terrible present situations are worried about the future. Emergency medical technicians—EMTs for example—say that when they are extracting someone from an accident, even if the person is bleeding and is in very bad shape, they’re worried about the future. The person will think, will I be able to walk? Will my loved ones be OK? Will we survive?
The Problem with Living in the Future
Sometimes this can reach absurd degrees. For example, have you ever been out to eat with friends, and gone to a nice restaurant where the people in the kitchen have gone through a lot of trouble to prepare a lovely, well-presented meal? You are with your friends and you begin eating, and the topic of conversation, before long, starts to go to other places we might like to go eat, including that great new place that opened across town. Wouldn’t that be fun to try? What happens is the mind leaves the experience of the present moment, leaves the taste of the food, and goes off into these fantasies about the future.
This is a transcript from the video series The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being. Watch it now, Wondrium.
You can try this yourself. Take a moment right now to think about something that makes you anxious. We all don’t have too much trouble coming up with something.
Is the thing you’re thinking about something about the past, or the future? Consider it. Usually, if it’s something about the past, you’re not worried about what you did this morning; you’re worried that you will be in trouble tonight for what you did this morning. It always is about the future.
Learn more about our troublesome brains
Then there is worry, which may be a uniquely human capacity. Like many, I’m a good worrier. I happen to do a lot of traveling, giving presentations frequently, and in the Boston area, the only practical way to get the airport from where I live is to go through a tunnel that goes under Boston Harbor.
One day, I hadn’t left much extra time for myself and I was driving into the tunnel. Halfway through the tunnel, I had an opportunity for taillight meditation because the traffic stopped, and it stayed stopped. It became one of those traffic jams where people get out of their cars to discuss the matter. Here, I started to worry and think, what if I miss my flight? Well, there might be a later one, but this is a pretty busy travel day. There might not be any room in it. Could I drive or take the train? No, it’s too far. Well, what can I do? Should I call the airline? No, that probably wouldn’t help. I guess I’ll just have to be here. I’ll follow my breath.
Rising, falling. Rising, falling.
What if I miss my flight? There might be a later one, but this is a pretty busy travel day. And the whole cycle just starts over, and over, and over. It is quite remarkable the way this works. Usually what happens is when we get to the end of whatever the worry loop is, there is a feeling like, oh, what will I do?—followed by a sense of helplessness, before we start worrying again.
But why do we do this? Sometimes, of course, we get positively reinforced. Sometimes we get into our worry loop and come up with a novel solution to the problem, but most of the time we don’t.
There’s just something about going through the thinking process that gives us the illusion that it’s somehow going to keep us safe, help us to cope, and prepare us for what may come. Indeed, when I was sitting there in the tunnel, waiting and hoping, I wasn’t just passively accepting my fate—I was actively worrying.
Learn more about befriending fear, worry, and anxiety
People have a lot of techniques that we do to try to avoid the risk of fear or pain. This is because we find anxiety to be unpleasant. One set of these we might call the Diver Dan approach to life. This involves phobic avoidance or constriction. It’s the things that we do to avoid any circumstance that might bring on fear or discomfort.
All of us know people like this. If they’re going to the airport, they head there three hours early. Often, they don’t even go to the airport, having decided they’d rather not travel but stay home. Traveling makes them nervous.
Then, there are the things we do directly to tackle anxiety when it comes up. An enormous number of people medicate anxiety. Sometimes that’s with prescription drugs that are prescribed by a doctor, but often it’s not. Very often, it’s simply having a drink under this circumstance or that, or using other drugs.
Probably what we do more than anything else is we try to distract ourselves. Do you want to guess what the leading leisure activity is in America? If you guessed watch television, you’re right. What might number two be? Frequently, people will say the internet, but that is a subset of what number two is; number two is shopping; it’s looking to acquire new things.
Changing Your Time, Changing Your Mind
We can take refuge in the present moment. Very often, when we are having anxious thoughts about what’s going to happen in the future, it’s because we can’t stand the uncertainty. We have a lot of difficulties tolerating the fact that we don’t know what is going to happen at the next moment. And yet, we don’t know what is going to happen at the next moment.
We have some existential problems that we must face. The reality of old age, illness, and death can produce a lot of anxiety for ourselves. Mindfulness practices can help us with this. In part, the focus on the present moment is antithetical to the anticipatory anxiety. If my attention is here, then I’m not so focused on what is happening later. We can genuinely take an attitude of not knowing.
It’s very hard for us to live not knowing. Yet mindfulness practice can help us to do that more by bringing us back to the present moment. There is also a safety that comes from identifying with the universe larger than us so that we don’t have to be so worried about these various existential threats.
Learn More: Why Mindfulness Matters
Facing Your Fears
Roughly 2,500 years ago, the Buddha said: “Why do I dwell always expecting fear and dread? What if I subdue that fear and dread keeping the same posture that I am in when it comes upon me? While I walked, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither stood nor sat nor lay down until I had subdued that fear and dread.”
Meditation practices are typically done in four different postures, sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. What the Buddha is teaching here is, whatever I am doing, I don’t scratch the itch, I don’t adjust to make the pain go away—but rather, I simply stay with the experience until it transforms by itself.
The basic lesson is to try to learn how to face our fears.
This idea that facing fears is what can free us turns out to be true both in classical behavioral treatment, and it’s true in a mindfulness-oriented treatment.
If you are particularly anxious, it can be hard to just sit and do something like meditative breathing. In those situations, it’s usually best to do more active practice, to do something like walking meditation, eating meditation, or even Hatha yoga, which is a form of very gentle stretching that can be done mindfully. These things are easier to do with activity, in much the same way you as when you see somebody is waiting outside of a surgical room, for example, at the hospital—they tend to pace. It dissipates the anxiety a little bit and makes it easier to work with.
Common Questions About How to Reduce Anxious Thoughts
While experiencing some amount of anxiety is natural, we can certainly take steps to reduce our anxiety. This includes exercising, keeping ourselves busy with productive tasks, and taking the time to quiet our mind through meditation.
To alleviate persistent anxiety, remove caffeine from your diet, write down all the thoughts that are bothering you, take a walk whenever you’re feeling particularly anxious, or talk about your feelings with someone who will be understanding and supportive.
To cope with anxiety, it is often recommended to do therapy or take medication or some combination of the two. Therapeutic approaches include cognitive-behavioral therapy, while medications used to treat anxiety include antidepressants and benzodiazepines.