Anxiety, at its core, is about the future. We can’t worry about the past — it has already happened. We also can’t worry about the present moment — if we are oriented to the present, we are aware that we are here, alive, and the future hasn’t happened yet. Thus whether it be 30 seconds from now or 30 years from now, when we are worried or fearful, we are concerned about what is going to happen — what hasn’t happened yet.
This isn’t to say that our concern about the future can’t be informed, in some way — by the past or the present. If my neighbor’s dog has tried to bite me every time I walk by their house, it is understandable I would feel fearful to approach the dog. Likewise, if I am currently suffering from a terrible migraine, it makes sense that I would feel dread when thinking about the pain I could be in for the next hour. In fact, it’s not just that it makes sense — anxiety and fear are adaptive. All animals possess this instinctual experience for survival. Without it, we might walk blithely into a fire, or attempt to befriend a hungry tiger.
But much of the anxiety we experience today — setting aside true, reality-based concerns — is not adaptive and is even maladaptive. That isn’t to say that it isn’t based on past experience, or knowledge, or our current experience. It’s more that the stakes are frequently lower than our worries would have us believe and often there are solutions to worst-case scenarios we haven’t yet thought about.
Often we are not in actual danger, we are simply facing situations that are unfamiliar to us or ones we don’t have a lot of control over. This creates fear, and our mind starts working hard to scan for the danger and some way we can feel more in control/safe. “Do something!” it shouts at us urgently, “Make us safe now!” Thus we typically turn to one of three options: we try to take (futile, unrelated) action to gain some sense of control, we focus on worst-case scenarios and become paralyzed, or we simply decide something negative will happen (so we don’t have to worry anymore) and we become depressed. Unfortunately, not one of these outcomes leads to healthy living.
The truth is, a satisfying and fulfilling life involves some level of risk, which will involve some level of anxiety. So avoiding risk (or becoming depressed) as a response to anxiety will generally not create a path forward towards that fulfilling life. Instead, we need to step out of our instinctual response. We must use our logic brain (or borrow the logic brain of a trusted person), evaluate the true and actual risk, take whatever action we can (if any) to mitigate the risk, and then find a way to move forward, anxiety and all.