Future tripping: Halting your 'what-if' worry wheels


If you become fixated on your anxiety, it completely absorbs you – and that’s the start of a disorder. It can manifest itself in anxiety attacks. — dpa

OMG! What will all this come to?

Thinking about the future can get your worry wheels turning: Rising prices, lurking pandemics, global warming, international conflicts, the state of the economy and your job security.

Anticipatory anxiety, also known as future tripping, is a particularly slippery kind of anxiety as the future is intrinsically uncertain. Trying to tame it is like wrestling with something amorphous, which can easily make you feel powerless.

“We naturally have greater influence over our own lives than over the big global picture,” says Dr Mirriam Priess, a specialist in psychosomatic medicine, stress management coach and author. “So we have more possibilities to overcome (concrete) fears in our personal lives.”

To help overcome a fear of heights, you can practise going out onto an observation deck, for example. There’s nothing comparable in regard to anticipatory anxiety, however.

Nevertheless, there are strategies to alleviate it a little. A first step is to better understand the function of fear and anxiety.

Experiencing them in uncertain times is perfectly normal, as they’re a reaction to situations we feel to be threatening, says psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr Andreas Hagemann, who like Priess is a specialist in psychosomatic medicine.

“In human evolution, they’ve been extremely important in protecting us from actual or expected danger,” he adds.

“Fears and anxieties arise in our ‘internalised world’, usually as a result of negative experiences,” Priess says. “And based on them, we evaluate external situations.”

If you’ve already received a compulsory redundancy notice in your life, for example, you’re probably more likely to be worried if you hear about possible personnel cutbacks on the office grapevine.

Personality plays a key role too. “Our early years are formative,” says Priess. “That’s when we have the first relationship experiences that have an effect on our self-esteem.”

And also on how we size up challenging situations – whether we trust ourselves to master them, or react with uncertainty and a feeling of powerlessness.

What can you do if unsettling “what-if” thoughts keep going round in your head and tension in your body builds? Priess advises that you respect your anxiety.

“This means accepting that you feel anxiety instead of trying to suppress it, which will only make it stronger.”

Sometimes anxiety lessens a little if you’re able to mentally distance yourself from it somewhat. You could tell yourself, “’There’s anxiety in me, but it’s not me,’” Priess suggests.

Then you can assess the situation with a cool head. What exactly is the matter? What are you worried about? How realistic are the negative scenarios you’re imagining? What are possible solutions should they come to pass?

Another way to deal with anxiety is to incorporate activities into your life that help relieve stress, since anxiety, according to Hagemann, is basically nothing other than stress. It could be jogging regularly, getting together with friends or practising relaxation techniques such as autogenic training, for instance.

Some people become increasingly consumed by anxiety, however. “If you become fixated on your anxiety, it completely absorbs you – and that’s the start of a disorder,” Priess says. It can manifest itself in anxiety attacks.

Many people in this state react by withdrawing into themselves and not dealing with the source of their anxiety anymore, which Priess warns only strengthens it.

“The solution,” she says, “is to speak openly about your anxiety, get support from family or friends instead of withdrawing, and seek professional help.”

Hagemann adds that anxiety disorders are very amenable to treatment, for example with cognitive behavioural therapy. – dpa/Ricarda Dieckmann

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