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Haunted by Fear of the Future? How to Overcome It

What lies behind the door at the other end of the room? Or to put it another way: What does the future hold for me? Worrying about what tomorrow will bring is a perfectly normal feeling. What really matters is how much we worry about our future and how seriously this fear affects our daily lives. In this article you will learn how fear of the future – also known as anticipatory anxiety – can develop and what helpful strategies you can adopt to deal with it.

» Fear of tomorrow always comes a day too soon! «

Phil Bosmans

What lies behind the door at the other end of the room? Or to put it another way: What does the future hold for me? Worrying about what tomorrow will bring is a perfectly normal feeling. What really matters is how much we worry about our future and how seriously this fear affects our daily lives. In this article you will learn how fear of the future – also known as anticipatory anxiety – can develop and what helpful strategies you can adopt to deal with it.

The future is in our heads

Do you know the feeling when the future seems out of reach? There’s actually a simple reason for this: the future genuinely is out of reach, because it essentially doesn’t exist. No one has ever seen or touched it. The only place it can be found is in our heads. Consequently, there’s no single thing we can call “the future”, because each of us imagines it differently.

Essentially, fear of the future, as the term suggests, is anxiety about what is to come. These worries stem from our thoughts.

Fear of the future does not always have a specific cause and is not bound to a certain age group. Children and young people can already develop fears about their future, but so can adults. In short, anticipatory anxiety can accompany us throughout our lives. However, it often emerges when we are in a period of change or upheaval, such as when we leave school or lose a job. Alternatively, fear of the future can haunt our minds without a specific reason. No sooner have we opened our eyes in the morning, feelings of uncertainty begin to weigh heavily on us – and we don’t even know exactly why. In these moments, the day ahead can appear entirely unpredictable and uncontrollable.

What causes fear of the future

Why do we approach the unknown with such apprehension? Fundamentally, fear of the future has an evolutionary background: the unknown has always represented a possible threat. Our body prepares itself for potential dangers by summoning all of its strength. We then perceive this as fear.

Fear has two main functions. It warns us of danger and activates us so that we are best equipped to protect ourselves from that danger. In other words, fear can help prepare us for unknown events in the future and is therefore not a bad thing per se. However, fear of the future can also go beyond any helpful level and leave us, in a sense, paralysed in our daily lives.

Fear of the future and depression

Fear of the future can get in our way. So much, in some cases, that we can no longer perceive the present moment properly, let alone enjoy it.

If we spend a long time worrying about future events, beyond a helpful extent, this anticipatory anxiety can lead to depression. We may then enter a downward spiral of thoughts where we give no space at all to the potentially positive aspects of our future.

You can see a diagram illustrating this spiral in our article How to Overcome Depression.

» Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right«

Henry Ford

Figuratively speaking, we view ourselves, our environment and the future through grey-tinted glasses. Our fears about the future and constant preoccupation with negative scenarios then cast everything else in a grey light. In other words, we begin to take all our experiences, whether positive or negative, as proof that we are incapable, worthless or useless. By doing so, we paint the future in the gloomiest of colours. So we get caught up in a never-ending chain of worry that can give rise to feelings of hopelessness. Negative thoughts like, “The future doesn’t hold anything positive for me,” can then start to dominate how we feel and how we behave. Among other things, this can lead to a situation where we no longer feel any energy at all and would prefer to simply pull the covers over our heads.

Pessimism and depression

Fear of the future and a depressed mood can therefore be related. However, fear of the future alone does not necessarily indicate depression. Rather, a negative or pessimistic outlook on the future is one symptom of many that would need to be present to indicate a case of depression.

3 steps to deal with fears about the future helpfully

So how can we free ourselves from this negative spiral? Remember: the future is something that exists solely in our heads. This is precisely where to start in order to overcome your fear of the future. Put away those grey pencils and get out your full palette of colours: now you can paint your own future using any colours you wish.

1Bring clarity

Thoughts like, “What if…” tend to haunt our minds like ghosts. Occasionally, these ghosts can take on a life of their own and grow to a size that no longer bears any relation to reality. The first step is therefore to get a grip on them. Because if you understand what generates fear, you can find a helpful way to deal with it.

Think carefully: What it is about the future you are afraid of? What you can actively do to influence it? Take on the role of a professional boxer who studies their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses in detail before an upcoming fight and plans their training camp accordingly. It’s entirely up to you whether you write down your fears on a piece of paper or do your thinking out loud.

2Move to action

Now it’s time to put your training plan into action. In other words, don’t wait until your opponent throws the first punch – make the first move yourself. Just be aware that, like your opponent’s punches, the future can never be predicted with perfect accuracy. Therefore, it can be helpful at this stage to consciously consider some different possible outcomes of your situation. Then, focus on what you can change; don’t worry about what is out of your control. Harness your evolutionary ability to anticipate and fear the future by preparing for what may come and taking appropriate action.

It’s not easy to take off your grey-tinted glasses overnight. For this reason, it’s important to be kind to yourself and to focus on positive changes you are making step by step. It can be helpful to keep a positive diary: each evening, write down two things that were enjoyable or that you accomplished that day. It could be as simple as savouring a cup of coffee in the morning or managing to note down your fears: every event and every moment counts.

3Boost your self-confidence

Facing the future is not always easy. However, by refocusing attention on your own strength, you can take away the fertile ground where fears and anxieties grow. You have already achieved many things in your life and turned your back on many fears that used to haunt you. So to give these ghosts of the future the cold shoulder, it can be very helpful to boost your self-esteem.

Ease into the future

The bottom line is that the future is and will always remain something uncertain. After all, it still lies ahead of us. Nevertheless, we should realise that we will always have a future to look forward to, and we can play a big role in how it turns out. Try to accept the future with serenity. Just like the song says: “Que sera, sera / Whatever will be, will be.” By having confidence in ourselves and the world around us, we can make the best of our future.

» Fear of a future that we dread can only be overcome by imagining a future that we want. «

Wilhelm-Ernst Barkhoff

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Our articles are written by psychologists and reviewed by psychotherapists.