My life has taken a few twists and turns recently, and many outside observers would probably call them “turns for the worse.” My car won’t run for some reason, I haven’t been able to sell my condo for three months, and my investments have taken a beating. Five years ago, I definitely would have lost some sleep worrying over these events, particularly because they all happened in a short time period. But today, I’m taking them in stride.
One of my friends couldn’t understand why I’m not worried about these setbacks. “I’d be worried if I were you,” he said.
“What would you be worried about?” I asked.
“I’d worry that things weren’t going to get better.”
“You’d be imagining what might happen in the future?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’d be imagining that, in five years, none of those problems would be solved.”
I found this conversation very enlightening, because my friend pinpointed the exact reason why I no longer find myself stressing about the setbacks in my life. When a problem would arise, I used to do exactly what my friend described—I’d form a pessimistic mental picture of the future. In this imaginary future, the problems I face in the present have exploded to fearsome proportions.
For example, if I were creating mental pictures of the future based on my current problems, I’d be imagining myself being flat broke a year from now because I never sold my condo, repairs for my car ended up being massively expensive, and the stock market never picked up. I’d be preoccupied with fear of that imaginary future, and that fear would have harmful physical effects—my chest and back would be tensing up, and I’d be grinding my jaw and giving myself headaches.
Why did I have this habit of conjuring up negative possible futures in my mind? Like I said, those mental pictures were painful to experience, and creating them didn’t have many practical benefits to me. Constantly worrying about a problem didn’t motivate me, or help me come up with ways, to solve it. To the contrary, all that anxiety about bad possible futures would paralyze me.
Because the imaginary futures seemed so threatening, I’d hold off from making a decision, for fear of doing something wrong and making my mental movies “come true.” Often, I’d try absorb myself in some other activity to avoid thinking about them. Instead of learning the valuable lessons the problems in my life could teach me, I refused to face them because I associated them with frightening mental images.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I had this habit for the same reason many people enjoy watching horror movies. Quite simply, on some level, I get a kick out of getting scared. Because I have a fairly vivid imagination, I don’t need to watch a movie to satisfy my craving for anxiety. I can generate limitless nightmare scenarios from the comforts of my own mind. The problem is that, although watching mental horror movies gets me my “fear fix,” it distracts me from actually dealing with my problems and creates physical discomfort.
People compulsively worry about the future for different reasons. Some people, for instance, don’t do it because part of them likes being afraid—they do it because, consciously or otherwise, it has them feel righteous. To them, their constant anxiety about the future makes them mature, responsible people. Making mental horror movies, in their view, is just part of being an adult. Similarly, some people worry about others’ safety all the time because it makes them feel caring and protective. If they weren’t constantly fretting about others’ well-being, after all, they’d be selfish people.
How do you get your mind out of the business of making horror movies? For me, the key is to stay alert for those moments when your mind starts imagining a negative future scenario. When you sense your mind doing this, simply remind yourself—whether internally or out loud—that your mind is feeding its fear addiction. Further, remind yourself that you don’t need those pictures to address the problems in your life. In fact, if you’re relaxed and composed when you’re solving your problems, you’ll do a much better job at it.
When you come to see them for what they really are, your mind’s nightmare scenarios don’t have the same emotional impact. What’s more, when you can detach yourself from the illusions your mind creates when you run into problems, you’re far more able to calmly and effectively address those problems.