How to Think of the Future in Times of Uncertainty

How to Think of the Future in Times of Uncertainty

At times of crisis and uncertainty, thinking of the future can be a real source of anxiety. Our creative minds can come up with all kinds of peril, which can either be a resource for preparedness or a recipe for an upset stomach and a stiff neck. Folk wisdom offers a direction: “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” Makes sense, but still we can often find ourselves caught in imaging our financial or physical demise in some personal dystopia. In the practice of mindfulness, we receive practical guidance on how to get good at remaining in the present moment while not ostriching our heads into the sand; we learn to distinguish between two kinds of tomorrows: the strategic future and the psychological future.

We all need to think of tomorrow, and prepare with our best guesses of what we need to show up, ready to engage. We need to use our imagination to open options that didn’t exist before. And we need to create reminders of our obligations so we stay on track. That way we can use creativity, memory, and experience to identify the best tactics and strategies to engage life as “the future” unfolds day to day.

The psychological future, however, is different. This is an unconscious process whereby we imagine what life will feel like when X happens, or when Y doesn’t happen. It’s the narrative that includes our sense of safety as well as suffering. It’s a way for the brain to create a “self of the future” and activate the body through feelings so we take action.

However, as we live in a much more complex physical and social environment, this evolutionary function of projecting ourselves into an imagined felt future is typically overwrought and inaccurate. It doesn’t serve us well all too often.

Many of the difficult circumstances that were legitimately present in my life (for instance, my mother’s rapid Alzheimer’s decline) were imagined to be much worse than they were in later experience. Her disease was so much more horrific in my imagination than what actually transpired. At first I suffered tremendously – in fact, more than she did by the estimation of her doctor and what we, her children, observed in her. But once I was able to stay with what was actually happening moment to moment, I saw that most of the time she was at peace, and I was able to let go of what I imagined was yet to come.

Being identified (lost in thought) with the psychological future makes us suffer long before the actual suffering, and usually in a more intense way. It also can, in extreme examples, create a confirmation bias that seeks to validate our beliefs about ourselves and the situation, despite evidence to the contrary. We can cling unwittingly to our suffering because we can’t see any other way to interpret the events and our experience of them.

To practice this in life under after-effects of over a year in quarantine and the ongoing relationship with COVID-19 that seems inevitable, prepare with good facts and sensible application to your situation by imagining what you would need to do if you or someone important to you were to become sick; but guard your mind from imagining the horror of it.

Speak with your financial planner about your monthly budget, investments, and portfolio, and make good decisions, but guard your mind from imagining being fearful, destitute, and desperate as a result of global markets or the effects of climate change on economies.

Mindfulness offers us the ability to become pragmatic and rational; when our inner resources are not expended by fearful and anxious “future tripping”, we open to the truth of being safe right now, this moment, and open to a stronger sense of compassion, connection, creativity, and hope.

A recent study from North Carolina State University finds that people who manage to balance living in the moment with planning for the future are best able to weather daily stress without succumbing to negative moods.

“It’s well established that daily stressors can make us more likely to have a negative affect or bad moods,” says Shevaun Neupert, a professor of psychology at NC State and corresponding author of a paper on the recent work. “Our work here sheds additional light on which variables influence how we respond to daily stress.”

Specifically, the researchers looked at two factors that are thought to influence how we handle stress: mindfulness and proactive coping.

Mindfulness is when people are centered and living in the moment, rather than dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. Proactive coping is when people engage in planning to reduce the likelihood of future stress.

To see how these factors influence responses to stress, the researchers looked at data from 223 study participants. The study included 116 people between the ages of 60 and 90, and 107 people between the ages of 18 and 36. All of the study participants were in the United States.

All of the study participants were asked to complete an initial survey in order to establish their tendency to engage in proactive coping. Participants were then asked to complete questionnaires for eight consecutive days that explored fluctuations in mindfulness. On those eight days, participants were also asked to report daily stressors and the extent to which they experienced negative mood.

The researchers found that engaging in proactive coping was beneficial at limiting the effect of daily stressors, but that this advantage essentially disappeared on days when a participant reported low mindfulness.

“Our results show that a combination of proactive coping and high mindfulness result in study participants of all ages being more resilient against daily stressors,” Neupert says. “Basically, we found that proactive planning and mindfulness account for about a quarter of the variance in how stressors influenced negative affect.

“Interventions targeting daily fluctuations in mindfulness may be especially helpful for those who are high in proactive coping and may be more inclined to think ahead to the future at the expense of remaining in the present.”

And it all can begin right now, this moment, as you are reading this.