It’s natural and healthy to think ahead, get excited about the future, and make plans. But studying for a degree at any level, in any discipline, can lead to what is called “anticipatory anxiety,” or “future tripping.” Sometimes midterms or finals can feel like the big bad wolf. A whole host of “what ifs” invade your brain. What if I fail? What if I choke? What if I forget everything or can’t deal with the stress? Or it can be as simple as feeling like something unknown is going to happen soon.
If you feel fear of the future edging in and are wondering how to handle anticipatory anxiety, we highly recommend what we call “The Four M’s”:
1 ) Movement
Get out of your head and into your body. Exercise is proven to combat stress, help you sleep, and keep your appetite even. Study can be a sedentary experience, and sometimes you must remind your head that it’s held up by your body. Your body misses you! Give it a turn. You’ll likely experience both instant and delayed gratification in the form of better sleep and reduced stress.
Not everyone is raring to do twelve sets of squats and planks, or has the upper body strength (yet!) to do ten pull-ups, or is on a competitive squash team. And many of us don’t have the time to do two hours at the gym. If it’s been a while, start slow. Even if all you do is a solo dance party with yourself once a day, or even take short walks, it can help absorb some of the stress of an overactive fear of failure or impending events.
Mindfulness is a term that encompasses a lot of things, and might seem vague, but the core of mindfulness is learning to stay in the present. Research has even demonstrated changes in the brain over time in those who make mindfulness a part of their self-care routine. It takes practice, but once you settle in, its rewards can decrease anticipatory anxiety and improve your mood over time.
What does that mean in practical terms? Start simple. The next time you’re in a conversation with someone, notice if you’re really just crafting your response instead of listening, or if fears are intruding while you try to read, and you have to go back and reread because you let worries steal you from studies. Start by just noticing it. Acknowledge the thought and show it the door. It’ll try to get back in, of course, but soon you’ll be able to trade anxiety about the future for listening and learning.
There are also mindfulness apps that you can download and use to help you stay present, like Mindfulness Coach and Reflectly.
Meditation is mindfulness’s “kissing cousin.” It’s not just complementary to Mindfulness, it’s one of the most powerful ways to take a break from fear of the future and just breathe your way back into the moment. If you don’t have a guru on call, this is also where you can go to your app store and download popular meditation apps like Calm and Headspace
Start small and don’t expect an overnight change, but make yourself a priority for even five minutes of meditation. Your thoughts might wander, and most meditation coaches will make a point of telling you that’s fine. Like mindfulness, meditation takes practice. Put on an app or some soothing music. Anything ambient and gentle will do. We like Brian Eno’s Music for Airports but a recording of anything from nature sounds to Gregorian chants can help you let your diaphragm give your busy brain a little time off to bring you back to the present and just breathe.
Your internal monologue isn’t always your friend. If you have rushing thoughts about things going wrong in the future, consider exactly what it is you’re worried about. Take the future fear that’s eating at you and turn it on its head. Changing your mindset from something to fear to something to look forward to can be as simple as creating a mantra that’s its opposite. For example:
- “What if something bad happens?” to “What hasn’t happened yet can’t hurt me now”
- “I’m not safe” to “I am safe.”
- “What if I fail?” to “I’m going to succeed.”
- “I’m not worthy” to “I deserve this.”
- “I can’t do this” to “I can do it.”
Think of a mantra as turning the negative question mark in your mind into a positive period. You listen to your mind, and your mind listens back. Tell it you love it, you love yourself, and you deserve and will achieve your goals. Change the narrative. You can’t control the future, but you can control the now. Get back in it. The future can wait.
Practices like The Four M’s might seem intangible and abstract, but there’s scientific research that continues to suggest that these are powerful tools for handling anticipatory anxiety or “future tripping”. And most of them take almost no time. Namaste.
WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.