Anxiety About the Future? Why You Should Manage Future Tripping

October 22, 2021

By Bonnie Raskin

Future-tripping. Future what? Future-tripping is an actual clinical term that my daughter the psychologist recently explained after she unceremoniously told me to STOP future-tripping, also known as anticipatory anxiety: when one worries about something that hasn’t even happened yet. This anxiety comes from overthinking, from an attempt to over-engineer the future as if it’s all within our control. Which, of course, it isn’t. The thinking goes, “if I just worry enough about ____ (fill in the blank), I can control the outcome.” Which, of course, we cannot. And that makes us anxious. Future-tripping stems from anxiety and it feeds anxiety; quite the vicious cycle. And we all future-trip to some extent. It becomes problematic, however, when we lose the here-and-now for some nebulous what if down some imaginary road.

If we spend our time worrying about things which we have no control over, that’s a recipe for misery. Future-tripping is often rooted in our desire and often unconscious wishing that we can control a situation or an outcome, when in fact, we can’t. To quote Timon from The Lion King, “Life’s just gonna happen, and we got to roll along with it.” But we do have the power to choose how we want to feel and react each step of the way. It’s totally human to want to control a situation, but since we realistically can’t know what the future holds, changing the framing of our worries frees us to handle uncertain possibilities.

The reality is that we live in very uncertain times. 2020 was no picnic, and 2021 is still topsy turvy for many of us. I have the pleasure and privilege to work with incredibly capable, high-performing, achievement-oriented, academically-and-otherwise exceptional students. To most people looking at these superstars on paper and in person, they present as exceptional, destined for great opportunities and experiences, future leaders, movers and shakers, global powerhouses for positive change. But to many of my community’s parents, their future-tripping removes them from the reality of who their sons and daughters are. I repeatedly hear, “It’s so competitive, what if ____ (fill in the names of sons and daughters) doesn’t get into such-and-such prestigious high school? How will he/she get into such-and-such prestigious college??” Or, “What if_____ doesn’t get into ANY high school???” While this is almost never the case in my 16+ years of experience as director of the Caroline D. Scholarship program—think about the ripple effect when parents’ hand-wringing worries manifest as real in the minds and psyches of their sons and daughters. When the students I work with–who have already been vetted by experts in the admissions and education world and selected as CDB Scholars– internalize or vocalize these doubts, any semblance of their already shaky teenage self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth crumble. The fallout is that these young people are too often reduced to questioning ANY of their choices or decisions and lose the reality of who they are, all that they’ve accomplished and all that they’re capable of achieving. They start to manifest many of the negative thought processes that come from future-tripping.

When parents and students become so focused on what they think lies ahead as anxiety-producing, scary and negative, they lose any reality of the world they’re living in NOW, in the present. I am constantly reminding the high school seniors I work with that their college application process is only one aspect of their highly anticipated senior year. To focus entirely on impossible- to- predict what if’s pertaining to where their next chapter will take them completely negates the experiences, opportunities and perks they’ve worked for the last three years to arrive at and enjoy as high school seniors.

Understanding what future-tripping is and how detrimental it can be, how do we modify this all too human behavior? We can shift our perspective by changing the language we use when speaking about anxiety. We can focus on the next steps we’re actually taking to get through uncertainties—doing research to clarify facts from hearsay, assure that we have sufficient time, energy and focus to do the work we need to complete an assignment, application or test prep. While this doesn’t necessarily guarantee a favorable outcome, it set us up for success in the present when we can honestly self-assess that we’ve done our best, the maximum effort we can do for any task or to achieve a certain objective. We can look to family and close friends who are a constant source of support. Also, we have our faith/religion, movement (exercise, sports, yoga, dance), journaling, music, books, movies, even favorite TV shows to soothe us in times of stress. We each have the tools and people to help us navigate difficult times. Lean into your support systems by reaching out to loved ones when you feel anxiety taking over. Having vulnerable conversations with people you trust can often release future-tripping episodes.

When we have expectations about and try to control the future, we set ourselves up for hard times. We can’t control the world or other people, jobs, school admits. Life happens. And sometimes in the moment it seems good and sometimes it seems less good. Whatever the actual circumstances and facts, we always have a choice of how and what to think. You can spend today worrying about tomorrow. You can borrow trouble, make yourself feel all kinds of terrible imagining all the worst things, but when you do, not only do you continue to keep yourself anxious, uncomfortable, and disquieted. You absolutely miss out on the beauty and grace of the present moment.

It’s all going to work out, it really is. Maybe not exactly as you thought it would or exactly when you thought it would, but sometimes the best things that happen are totally unplanned. Ask yourself, “Is this situation in my control? If not, how can I adapt and move on, move forward?” When you learn to be open-minded and roll with the punches, your fear of what if’s can lessen a great deal.
An IEA colleague shared a quote from Kung Fu Panda’s Master Oogway that’s an apt takeaway and antidote to curtail future-tripping:

“Yesterday is history, Tomorrow is mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it’s called THE PRESENT.”

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