BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 2017
When things go bad, and we respond by avoiding or denying, we compound the problems, accumulating the troubles. We must stop the foolishness and get back on track.
We time travel (in the mind), landing in the future, identifying hazards, and then returning, bringing a little anxiety to the present. Time traveling motivates action. The busy mind can gleam necessary insights from forecasting troubles and productively prepare. Some label this process “worry,” suggesting preparation detracts from the moment—the glorious now.
Ignorance has its blessings, engendering blind bliss; careless spending, relationship destroying carelessness, and career stagnating euphoria. Future preparation requires considering obstacles. This isn’t always pleasant; thinking of upcoming trouble creates anxiety. But effective living demands preparation. Research supports this; people who evaluate possible obstacles improve their chances of success. If we realistically identify possible bumps, barriers and distractions, we are more likely to successfully navigate them. Foresight prepares us for action.
This contradicts the decree: “Don’t worry, be happy.” ~ Bobby McFerrin
We can worry, just must avoid the immobilizing kind. If worries paralyze present action, our worries have morphed from a powerful adaptation to a debilitating disease—we must adjust, seeking help if needed. We should worry enough to mobilize action, preparing for the realistic future that is mixed with joys and sorrows, successes and failures, fortunes and hardships.
Worry Over the Future
The happiness crowd is absolutely correct; concern for the future disrupts present pleasure. We enjoy thoughts of problem-free living, entertaining dreams of futures adorned with unlimited money, untroubled relationships, and delightful children. But too much time daydreaming of ideals often deters from the present work necessary to improve the circumstances of our lives.
Our unrealistic daydreams may land us in a future destitute, working unfulfilling jobs in our later years and relying on children that may not be as delightful as we dreamed. We must envision our desired future, understand the requirements for that future, and perform the necessary preparation in the present. As long as those dreams our based in reality, and we can formulate a realistic plan for achievement, the dreams may materialize into reality. Our future will have much less anxieties and we can enjoy a more natural happiness—the joys of a life well-lived.
The path to our dreams may go astray—unrealistic dreams, errant plans, or unwillingness to work. We get suckered into enjoying visions of the future, but never moving forward to the strenuous work required. We never can plan for every possible obstacle. Many goals stretch over a life time—with many unpredicted detours. Our plans are always incomplete. Life is too complex to have it all mapped out. We must courageous move forward with some uncertainty, and sufficient flexibility. (See flexibility)
Too much worry of insufficient resources—money, time or skill—overwhelms. The anxiety of possible failure alerts us to take action. But when we are uncertain of the proper response, the fear compounds and we seek escape. The discomfort must be soothed. In the dangerous arena of compounding fears and no direction for alleviating response, we hide, or we collapse.
"Our plans are always incomplete. Life is too complex to have it all mapped out. We must courageous move forward with some uncertainty, and sufficient flexibility."
The Danger of Ignoring Problems in the Present
Money is a necessary resource. Modern survival demands financial resources. A staple of stability is budgeting income with known expenses. We face the reality of our financial stability, glaring at the numbers, we either achieve security or painful realize insufficiency. The lack instigates anxiety. The biological alarm signals warning and we seek changes—more money or fewer expenses. Reality!
The numbers don’t lie. But for some, another path is to ignore the unpleasant reality of insufficiency: avoidance. By not budgeting and addressing the looming disaster, the pressure of the future shortcomings is avoided—temporarily. The present moment is kept pristine from the dirty reality of being broke.
But addressing the shortfall through designing a working plan, keeps the problems in focus, challenging our present peace, we immerse ourselves in some present worry over an approaching difficulty; a trade-off with significant consequences. Many problems are easily resolved with the blessing of distance and time. When we easily crumble to the pressures of discomforting emotions, our avoiding adaptations, unfortunately, give us more to worry about.
Compulsive shoppers, the ones most prone to budget shortfalls, often respond to the anxiety of unpayable bills by shopping, furthering the impending doom; this may effectively relieve present anxiety. Drugs, alcohol, television, and thoughtless surfing of the internet all misdirect efforts, soothing discomforting emotions in the present but ignoring the future. We throw unpaid bills in a drawer, avoid necessary discussions in a deteriorating relationship, and forget the login password to review under-funded retirement accounts.
Avoidance relieves tension; but by burying our heads in the sand, the pile of bills, the uncompleted projects and the divide at home accumulates, leaving us further and further behind. The manageable tasks that could effectively be addressed with appropriate action, explode, demanding more resources and heavier consequences when ignored. Our lives become chaotic without maintenance and preparation; household chores pile up, bills accumulate and grievances compound.
See Coping with Avoidance for more on this topic
Emotions and Motivation to Act
Our emotions are biological; our responses to the complexities of modern survival are learned. A misdirected response to soothe emotions fails to solve the problem indicating faulty learning and unhelpful adaptation to the biological given of emotion. Misdirected action postpones anxiety while the impending disaster continues to approach, picking up speed and gathering mass. Our present bliss is charged against the future, setting us up for a debilitating collapse.
We can avoid many of the pending disasters by identifying problems early and then designing a workable plan. Sometimes the pending troubles darken hopes, looming long into the foreseeable future, and we have no effective avenues of escape, moving forward is frightening.
When life becomes overwhelming, we must take different action, courageously taking one small step at a time, building new skills and developing other proficiencies. We may not know where we will be employed but can gather better resources. We may not know who our partner will be; but we can develop better relationship skills. We may be entrapped by addiction now; but we can strengthen personal characteristics essential for later escape. Planning and doing defy fear, bolster courage, and diminish anxiety. By facing the anxiety, we effectively address the core causes of the emotion.
When overwhelmed, slow down, take a deep breath and then identify something that needs doing and get to the work of doing it. Being engaged in a portion of the answer frees the mind from some of the anxiety, while solving a portion of the underlying issue, something that an escape to the local tavern, or shopping mall fails to achieve. We solve a small piece rather than accumulate more and greater problems.
The anxiety of the future will always be with us. Putting our hands over our eyes fails to dismiss the reality of the danger rolling towards us. Start doing. Put ten dollars in savings, pay off one bill, make one phone call, and take one college course. A small step won’t immediately change your life; but it will begin the change and alleviate some of the anxiety.
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