Remember what I said about anxiety, that it's imagined and in the future? Even if we worry about the past it's usually still about how it might affect us in the future. And until we can build a time machine that can transport us back into the past for a do-over, we've got to stay in the present and accept what's done and move forward.
Now just because a fear is in the future doesn't mean it's not possible or even probable but it's still out ahead. If I'm going to have a root canal next week it doesn't do me any good to worry about it now. It will only cause me more anxiety and distress. I'll start worrying when I sit down in the dentist's chair. Interestingly, by that time I'm probably pretty calm as the anticipation is usually worse than the event itself. We say the alarm is greater than the fire.
So here's a nifty little tool that one of my clients taught me for managing future worry or a whole bunch of negative thoughts that can grab us if we let them. Everyone I've passed it on to has found it helpful and I use it myself. I call it "The Useful Thought Question".
It's this simple: When we catch ourselves having the thought ask ourself, "Is this thought useful to me RIGHT NOW? And right now means right now! Not two hours, two days or two weeks from now but right now, this very second. Can I do anything about it right now, is it helpful, productive, counter-productive or harmful? If the answer is "No, this thought isn't useful to me", then we Thought Shift by distracting, focusing our attention elsewhere, maybe involving physical and mental activity. Trying not to think about something keeps us thinking about it (try not to think about the blue elephant floating over my head right now).
If the answer to the question is "yeah, this thought is useful to me right now," then we give it all the time and attention it deserves until it's done. If I need to get a check in mail to the IRS today and the postman is pulling into the parking lot, then I'm going to drop everything and get it into the box. Then let it go.
It's pretty simple and effective but, like the tourist in New York City who stops a guy on the street and says, "Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?' The guys says, "Sure, practice, practice, practice."
Coming up: Advanced Thought Shifting