Facing The Unknown

How to help yourself if you’re anxious about unavoidable changes in your life.

Humans are creatures of habit. We like to stick with what we know. Our brains naturally tend to treat new situations with suspicion or even fear. It’s a survival technique that dates back to pre-history, when new situations could be dangerous and could mean life or death. Thankfully, nowadays our lives are much safer, but our brains haven’t moved on – we’re still stuck in pre-historic times and we react emotionally to changes such as getting a new job, having a child, etc. in much the same way as we would have done 20,000 years ago, when faced with something unexpected.

How does this happen? The answer lies in the way in which we make sense of the world. We tend to use mental “compartments” to store information. We put what we know about the world into those compartments, and we make judgements about the future based upon what we know about the present, using information stored in our mental compartments, and we make plans accordingly. Future events that will involve a lot of change can be confusing and fearful for us, because we haven’t got much information in any of our compartments that can prepare us for changes where we’re venturing far into the unknown. We can’t plan, and our brains interpret that as danger. Therefore, we worry – sometimes to a point where we feel overwhelmed. We often compound this worry by filling in the empty information with what we already have stored in our compartments, but what we have doesn’t seem to fit with what we’re heading into, so we worry even more. The cruicial thing to understand is this:

We are not afraid of the future itself, we are afraid of what WE IMAGINE the future will hold.

Notice the emphasis on “we imagine”. That’s because we are afraid of what we’ve mentally constructed the future to be, in terms of what’s in our mental containers. Therefore, we are afraid of ourselves! Specifically:

We are afraid that we won’t be able to cope with the future, as we have imagined it.

That’s because we feel agitated, stressed, worried right now when we think about the future, therefore we imagine that we will feel the same (or worse) when the future comes to pass. It’s really crucial to remember that how you feel now about the future is an artefact of your brain’s way of compartmentalising things. “So”, you ask, “That’s great to know, but what can I do about it?”

Firstly simply being mindful of your feeling of worry can, paradoxically, be very calming. You can acknowledge to yourself that you do feel worried, and you can reassure yourself by remembering that your fears are all about you – they’re not about the future at all. You might like to talk about your worries to someone, such as a psychotherapist, minister, trusted friend or loved family member who can listen without judgement and help you understand yourself better, so you can get a handle on what you’re really worried about. This can help because:

When you understand yourself, you have a choice about how you want to see the future.

And when you can choose how you see the future, you’ll probably find you don’t feel half as worried as you used to.

9th September 2015