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Dealing with the unknown: managing anxiety about the future

Malaysian airline image

Not recently has there been an international news story so anxiously talked about, analysed and predicted as the decline of the missing Malaysian airlines flight MH370. People across the world remain tensely gripped and theories continue to be banded about over the media as both experts and the masses try to piece together the most accurate picture of what really happened.

Anxiety about the unknown: a rarely addressed mental health issue

At Fresh Mind Therapy so many of our clients come to us with anxiety, particularly with recurring fears about the future and about events where they are not able, or not yet able, to determine the outcome. This anxiety, often not considered a real mental health issue and just ‘part of life’ can remain painfully ignored, potentially leading to a variety of life-limiting behaviours such as work-avoidance, co-dependency or rejection of others, obsessive fear, daily sadness, procrastination, isolation, compulsive behaviours, irritability and even depression.

In today’s blog we’re going to explore the mental thought processes surrounding the very human fear of the unknown, common associated behavioural patterns, and finally look at what we can we do to manage this anxiety more effectively, regardless of what may come.

First things first – how do we deal with the unknown?

First of all, we need to get to know this feeling. There are three well-known steps we take in the process of thinking about the future which serve to perpetuate what can become a negative set of mental ‘cognitions:’

1) The trigger

At the start of every negative thought process or pattern of behaviour is always a trigger. We hear, see or read something that sets off a fear in our minds, almost like a little shock. This fear may have memories of another event attached to it, it may tap into a learned expectation, or it may seem to have some relevance to a current situation in our lives. The initial outcome of a trigger is that we begin to feel vulnerable and out of control, a state most of us will do anything to avoid and the way we deal with that is to start another potentially hairy thought process, projection.

2) Projection

As we start to try to manage our fears, our minds naturally start to consider and mentally play out all the possibilities. What if it really was a terrorist attack? What if it’s a conspiracy by our very own government? What if there’s more to come? What if there could have been some survivors? And so on. In the projection process we tend to come to accept in some way, an outcome which, while remaining very clearly only a potentiality, most ‘suits us’ which unfortunately is often based on our own negative beliefs and fears.

3) Reaction

Having decided on a theory which we believe to be the most likely, or even ‘the truth’ we then tend, on a subconscious level, to act out defensive behaviours as we further anticipate the arrival of the outcome. These behaviours may be obsessively checking the news and social media, compulsively eating, drinking or smoking, hiding at home, lashing out at others or quite simply putting off our daily tasks or completing them inefficiently, raising more anxiety. We may be distracted by the story again and again, unable to put it aside.

3 ways to manage fear of the unknown

Rather than repeatedly playing out the ‘fear story’ we create, the solution, and there is one, is to start with our thinking. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) maintains that while we have no control over the future, we can work towards a better ‘mental flexibility’ which helps us to cope better, can determine how we come to act and therefore reduce anxiety and decrease negative daily actions. Find the answers you need by first answering these three questions:

1. Can I do anything to affect this outcome or result?

If you can’t:

If there’s nothing we can do ourselves to change the outcome and we accept this, we may finally be able to refocus our attention on things that need our action in the present moment. In many cases, we need to wait for further information before being able to react effectively.

If you can:

If you can, then now’s the time to schedule and complete the necessary tasks to move towards the desired outcome, rather than spending time worrying and distracting ourselves.

2. What’s the real fear behind this anxiety I’m having?

If we trace this fear back to original trigger we can often provide our own balanced perspective on the mental processes we experience and therefore reach a solution much faster. When we rely solely on the production of information by outside sources, we are again in a state of anticipation and anxiety.

3. Moving forward, what can I do to avoid anxiously dwelling on the future?

Knowing what we have come to recognise as a trigger and a behavioural pattern which follows that trigger, we can then be increasingly aware of our default thought patterns when fears arise. This helps us to remove the trigger, address the anxiety head on and learn effective behaviours surrounding challenging events.

We hope this blog has been useful. We find that applying practical mental tools to problems results in fast solutions and better piece of mind. That’s why at Fresh Mind Therapy we empower our clients to reach their own conclusions, which nurture them and help them to cope with difficult situations in the time to come. Our focus on CBT promotes an engagement with the present moment as a solution to a variety of anxiety-based behavioural patterns. To speak to us about an anxiety-related problem or any mental health issue, contact us here

photo credit: Auckland Photo News Rodger McCutcheon via photopin cc