We are forever toppling forward. We are thinking about the future, the future, 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
We are forever toppling forward. We are thinking about the future, the future, the future—looking forward to pleasure, trying to engineer things have pleasant experiences, and dreading pain. Of course, there are some people who spend more time looking back, and those folks, I think in general, tend to experience depression more than anxiety. Those of us who are more anxious, we look forward quite a bit.
Learn more: Anxiety and Fear
It turns out that all anxiety is anticipatory. And even people that are in terrible present situations are worried about the future. Emergency medical technicians—EMTs, the folks in ambulances—they say that when they are extracting somebody 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 clearly the people in the kitchen have gone through a lot of trouble to prepare a lovely meal, well-presented. And you are with your friends and you start eating the meal, and the topic of conversation, before long, starts to go to other places we might like to go eat. Oh yeah, there is that great new place that opened across town. Wouldn’t that be fun to try? So, 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.
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You can try this yourself. Think about something that makes you anxious. Just take a moment right now. We all don’t have too much trouble usually coming up with something. Did you get it?
Now is the thing you’re thinking about something about the past, or the future? Take a moment. Usually, if it’s something about the past, I’m not worried about what I did this morning—I’m worried that I’m going to be incarcerated tonight for what I did this morning. It always is about the future.
Learn more: Our Troublesome Brains
And then there is worry, which I must think is a uniquely human capacity. I’m a good worrier. I happen to do a lot of traveling, giving presentations like this one, and in the Boston area, really the only practical way to get the airport from where I live is to go through a tunnel that goes under Boston Harbor.
So, one day I hadn’t left very much extra time and I was driving into the tunnel. And halfway through the tunnel, I had an opportunity for taillight meditation because the traffic stopped. And then it stayed stopped. And it became one of those traffic jams where people get out of their cars to discuss the matter. And I started to worry. I started to 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. 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. And usually what happens is when we get to the end of whatever the worry loop is there is a feeling like, oh gosh, what will I do?—and then a sense of helplessness, and then we go on to start worrying again.
Now, why do we do this? Now sometimes, of course, we get positively reinforced. Sometimes we’ll get into our worry loop and we’ll 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, and 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: Befriending Fear, Worry, and Anxiety
We 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 very unpleasant. One set of these we might call the Diver Dan approach to life. And this involves phobic avoidance or constriction. It’s the things that we do to avoid any circumstance that might bring on fear or might bring on discomfort.
You know folks like this. If they’re going to the airport, they head there three hours early. In fact, often they don’t even go to the airport. They decided I’d rather not travel. I’d rather stay home. Traveling makes me nervous.
And then there are the things we do directly to tackle anxiety when it comes up. An awful lot of people medicate anxiety. Now, sometimes that’s with prescription drugs that are prescribed by a doctor. Very 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? What do we do more of here than anything else in our free time? If you guessed watch television, you got that right. Then think about what number two might be. A lot of times these days 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 really don’t know what is going to happen at the next moment. And yet, we really 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, of illness, of death, can produce a lot of anxiety for ourselves. And 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 really take an attitude of not knowing.
It’s very hard for us to live not knowing. And 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 I don’t have to be so worried about these various narcissistic threats.
Learn more: Why Mindfulness Matters
Facing Your Fears
Here is what the Buddha said 2,500 years ago: “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. So, what the Buddha is saying 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.
So basically, what we’re trying to do is learn how to face our fears.
This idea that facing the 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.
Now, if you are particularly anxious, it can be hard to just sit and do something like the breath meditation. So, in those situations, it’s usually best to do more active practice, to do something like walking meditation, or eating meditation, or even Hatha yoga, which is a form of very gentle stretching that can be done in a mindful way. These things are easier, the same way you see when somebody is waiting outside of a surgical room, for example, at the hospital—they tend to pace. It dissipates the anxiety a little bit, makes it easier to work with.