How to Free Your Brain from Agonizing About the Future
As I packed empty boxes and bottles, I had no idea I was about to throw away one of my core beliefs in the same trash can.
Since my building’s dumpsters were too full to welcome my puffed-like-a-pillow bags, I headed to the ones at the center of my neighborhood. On my way there, I saw an electric scooter parked in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Okay, Nabil, this scooter is about twenty steps away. If you play this right, you can leap over it casually as if it doesn’t exist — That would look cool.”
I need to take bigger steps to make the overlap look natural.
These big steps don’t feel — and definitely don’t look natural. I need to adjust.
I’m going too fast.
What if I trip? Falling with bags full of glass would be ugly.
Oh man, this is harder than I thought.
Am I overthinking?
You lost, dude.
Just like my steaming breath in the cold, my confident smile faded in a hurry. My face contracted, making the cold wind sting harder — but not nearly as hard as my thoughts. “There’s more to your missed silly game,” my inner voice whispered. “This is not about the scooter — but you already know that.”
I spent the rest of my ecofriendly stroll dissecting the incident. It was no longer about overlapping a scooter, though. It was about my tendency to anticipate almost everything in life.
The brief debate inside my head went something like this:
How You Do Something Is Usually How You Do Everything
Perhaps very few people watch their behavior as closely as I do. But, if you decide to join the self-observers club, you’ll soon realize that you’re constantly seeking and replicating patterns of behavior.
Just like you could agree to order pizza despite wanting sushi to please your other half, you could take on a dreadful task that’s not a part of your job to avoid conflict with your coworker. While being agreeable could be beneficial in one context, it can backfire in others.
Indulging your spouse for choosing a meal is a lovely gesture but overburdening yourself is at best counterproductive: same pattern, different context, and different payoffs.
Similarly, anticipation helps to analyze long-term projects like upgrading your furniture, but it can easily turn into self-sabotage. During my brief walk towards the recyclable containers, I realized I often anticipate my writing projects and relationships the same way I preempted the electric scooter.
“What if I run out of marketing ideas? What if my self-help content is too dull to be noticed?” And “What if Tina and I fail to cope with distance? What if she meets another guy while she’s away?” The list goes on revealing the same behavior — in other words, the same pattern: that of anticipation.
When you anticipate, you hold your worries in your mind until exhaustion takes its toll, leaving you right where you started — if not behind. But just like me, you already know that. The question is: Why do we keep doing it?
It’s easy to fall into the rumination trap because it provides an attractive illusion: that of control. “If I predict the disaster, I can prevent it,” you might think. Except, when you do so, you overlook two game-changers. First, disastrous thoughts make for self-fulfilling prophecies. Second, uncertainty is the only certainty there is.
I would argue that we forget these facts and rush into anticipation instead because we forget to ask ourselves the following question:
Can I Do Something About it Right Now?
Though such a reaction is only natural, it doesn’t always favor us. The more we think of ways to weather the external storm, the tougher the inner one becomes. Upon constant rumination, your thoughts spiral you down deep into dark mental waters where disaster awaits to swallow your psyche. From there, Anticipatory Anxiety takes over your thoughts.
In his essay about this specific type of anxiety, Pillay wrote: “This unconscious anticipation of disasters often gets us exactly the opposite of what we want and the unconscious fears that we hold impact the fear centers of the brain and disrupt any actual plans that the brain can come up with.”
In other words, it’s a cycle where our desire to solve problems leads us to expect catastrophe, which, in turn, paralyzes our problem-solving abilities.
Pillay explained that you break the cycle when you interrupt the emotional triggers through rational interventions. The idea is to step back from your current state, examine the situation, and force your mind to shift its focus.
All three steps can be achieved by asking yourself three consecutive questions:
1. What can I do about the source of my anticipation right here and now?
Answering the first question is about getting back to reality. Your answer will also set you up to regulate both your emotions and thoughts.
For instance, when I ruminated about my relationship with Tina, my worry was: her meeting somebody while away. “Can I do something about it?”
If your answer involves actions — proceed with or schedule them. This will ease your mind as you know you took a step forward. Tina and I had a daily routine call to check up on each other. My action was to make sure I didn’t miss these calls. So, I put reminders in my calendar.
If your answer is or becomes “nothing,” take a few minutes to accept it. For me, after setting the daily reminders, there was nothing left I could do. Though it may sound paradoxical, realizing that you can’t do anything about the problem you have in mind is liberating. “If we take care of our relationship, it’ll resist turbulence — besides Tina would tell me if something happens. So, in the meantime, chill dear brain.”
2. What else can I focus on?
The second question's aim isn’t to repress your negative emotions but to attenuate them through active self-reassurance.
In this context, your anticipatory anxiety can be seen as a distraction — a strong one. Almost every day, a toxic thought like “If you had better finances, you could fly there every week — but you don’t!” would knock at my psyche’s door. When that happens to you, redirect your attention away from negative disturbances and toward a comforting task or thought. My techniques are usually read, watch documentaries about space, or walk outside.
Similarly, you can engage with something you enjoy or browse your memory to gather a little positivity. What else can you focus on?
3. For how long can I keep my anticipation under control?
The third question is about fighting anticipation with anticipation.
When you focus your thoughts on self-control, you trade one anticipation (that of your problem) for a lesser one (that of how much time you can keep your psyche together.)
Keeping the example with my distance-relationship ruminations, I set my limit to one day at a time. I clung to my daily calls with Tina which usually reduced my anxiety to near nothing. We usually call right before bedtime. From there, I would go to sleep. The next day, I’d focus on my daily hurdles primarily. When there’s room for rumination, I’d remind myself that what I’m doing is a great exercise to manage my tendency to overthink and stress.
Also noteworthy, keep in mind that you can rerun the questions to break new anxiety loops. Whenever I feel weak again, I’d re-ask myself “Can you do something about it?”
Bonus: Talking Helps
On top of your personal efforts, keep in mind that nothing holds you back from reaching out to friends and family. Sharing your problems has been proven to be helpful with stress and anxiety.
“Your brain and body get a lot out of talking,” writes Eric Ravenscraft in the New York Times. Ravenscraft shared research results praising the benefits of constructive dialogue with trustworthy and solution-oriented peers while processing negative emotions.
In short, the whole process boils down to this: Do something about your source of stress if you can. If you can’t, focus on something else or talk it out.
Conclusion — Break the Pattern
We, humans, are mobile creatures — both physically and mentally. We’re constantly moving from one point to another, from one activity to another, from one thought to another, and from the past to the future.
Since we want our journeys to be smooth, we anticipate. Whether it’s a scooter parked on the street or this month’s bills, we anticipate. I used to see anticipation as a gift until I met this scooter. Then, I tossed it.
On my way back, I also Tossed a Coin to the Witcher and decided to sing instead of calculating steps. Though my overlap was sloppy, my smile has reshaped my freezing face. I’d scored a double win.
One against the scooter, the second against my psyche. Now it’s your turn to score yours. And remember, you can’t win if you don’t play.