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High Anxiety

Imagining the future helps the present

This week, I’ve asked my friend Ethan Kross to share his tip of the week. Be well.

Feeling anxious about the coronavirus?

I am, and you should be, too. We’re facing a pandemic that’s not in our control. The immediate future is uncertain. Anxiety is a natural and useful response, focusing our attention on the threat we’re facing, increasing the likelihood that we take the necessary steps to manage it. For instance, anxiety leads us to practice social distancing and wash our hands thoroughly.

But in large doses, anxiety can be problematic. Excessive worrying can take a toll on our health, relationships, and performance.

So, how do we regulate our anxiety?

One research-based technique is temporal distancing. This involves imagining how you’ll feel about a negative experience in the future—say, several months or years from now.

For example, I might say to myself, “How am I going to survive not leaving my house for who knows how many weeks?”

But then I’ll use temporal distancing to put things in perspective: “One day, I’ll be telling my grandchildren about the pandemic of 2020. I’ll describe what it was like for kids to do distance learning and families to be together 24/7. I’ll explain how I was worried about so many things. And then I’ll talk about how we made it through.”

Thinking about the coronavirus in this way doesn’t diminish the urgency of the current situation. But it highlights the fact that what we’re going through is temporary, which buoys hope and keeps extreme anxiety at bay. And temporal distancing doesn’t just help adults—adolescents benefit from putting things in perspective this way, too.

Don’t misunderstand anxiety. Worrying about the future is a normal and adaptive response to future threats.

Do use temporal distancing to help you see the bigger picture. And if the young people in your life are having trouble regulating their anxiety, ask them to think about how they’ll feel in the future, when the threat of the coronavirus subsides. Because this, too, shall pass.

With gratitude,

Ethan Kross, author of the forthcoming book Chatter, is a professor at the University of Michigan, where he has appointments in the psychology department and the Ross School of Business. He directs the University of Michigan Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory.