Anxiety About the Future: It’s All in Your Head

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" by Dale Carnegie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you often find yourself ruminating about the past or filled with anxiety about the future? How can you consciously refocus your thoughts away from the far-off future and onto today?

Too often, we focus on the unchangeable past and the far-off future rather than fully living in the certain present. Though it may seem like anxiety about the future or dwelling in the past can easily ruin your life, the solution is quite simple—focusing on the present.

Here’s how you can refocus your attention.

Overcoming Anxiety About the Future One Day at a Time

The most basic way to combat worry is training yourself to shut your mind off completely from the worries of yesterday and tomorrow, instead focusing all your attention and energy on the present moment. This is essential to alleviating stress and anxiety. When you worry about the past and future, those stresses and anxieties get added to your present load—you’ll always be carrying three times the weight you need to. When you’re carrying the weight of excess worry, you’re easily stretched to your mental limits. This causes anxiety and unclear, disorganized thinking. 

On the other hand, shutting out worries about the past and future ensures that you’re only carrying one day’s worth of stress at a time, which allows you to keep your thinking clear and logical. 

Prepare for the Future by Living One Day at a Time

Not worrying about the future doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t prepare for it. Of course, it’s necessary to save for retirement, plan your week’s schedule, and so on. 

But always keep in mind that no one can predict what’s to come—the only thing in life that you can control is the present moment. Trying to prepare for the future by trying to predict what will happen is a waste of your time. Instead, prepare for the future by doing today’s obligations as well as you possibly can—therefore making things easier for your future self. 

  • For example, instead of fretting about whether you’ll have enough money for retirement, focus on ways to start saving today—such as creating a budget, setting up a meeting with a financial advisor, or simply outlining your savings goals for the year. 

It’s important to understand that tackling today’s obligations as well as you possibly can doesn’t mean taking them all on at once or speeding through them. Consider this analogy: Your mind is an hourglass, and the sand inside is made up of your tasks, responsibilities, meetings, and so on. When you allow these grains of sand through the hourglass’s narrow opening one at a time, everything functions as it should. Everything gets done slowly and evenly. But if you were to try and squeeze a whole handful of sand through the opening at once, you’d damage the hourglass, clogging it or breaking it. 

Trying to take on too many tasks at once will make you a nervous, worried, disorganized mess. Instead, tackle your day one task at a time and focus your energy on doing that task as best you can—this will create a calm, efficient thought process where everything works as it should.

Reconnect With Your Life by Living One Day at a Time

When you focus on doing “today” as best you can, you naturally interrupt a wasteful thought process that many of us are guilty of—putting off living our lives because we’re focused on a far-off, attractive future. 

  • When you’re a child, you talk about what you want to do “when I’m older.” In your teenage years, you think about life “when I’m an adult.” In college, you think about “when I have a job.” Once you’re on a career path, you dream about what you’ll do “when I make a better salary” or “when I retire.” 

The tragedy of this thinking is that you arrive at the end of your life and realize that you spent so much time looking forward to the future that you missed the life you were living in the present. Living one day at a time helps engage you more deeply with the life that’s sitting right in front of you. 

Worry May Be Costing You Your Health

Besides better immersing you in the present, mitigating worry also helps you avoid serious mental and physical manifestations of worry. It’s relatively unsurprising that doctors have repeatedly found strong correlations between worry and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety

What’s more surprising is that worry is also closely linked with serious physical symptoms. Worry can manifest physically as ulcers, headaches, insomnia, cardiac issues, diabetes, and rashes—just to name a few. 

(Shortform note: To illustrate this point, Carnegie cited several medical studies that are now outdated. However, modern research echoes his point—there’s a strong correlation between stress and serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, insomnia, mental illness, and dermatological issues.) 

It’s important to note that you don’t need to have overwhelming stress to feel its physical effects—even small, everyday stresses can deteriorate your health over time. Many people brush off their current work stresses, thinking that a bit of worry is a decent tradeoff for more wealth and power—and it’s a common sentiment in today’s fast-paced, ambitious society. But the cost is much larger than you may think. If you want to live a long, healthy life, your focus needs to be less on amassing wealth and more on maintaining your inner peace. 

Anxiety About the Future: It’s All in Your Head

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  • What worry is and how it manifests both physically and mentally
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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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