Reducing anxiety – through a different approach to planning

November 14th 2020

Could the way you plan actually lead to you feeling anxious....???

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Had you met me 20 years ago and asked what I was doing in 3 months, I could probably have told you.  Now, I’m often pretty vague about what I will be doing tomorrow!

I work with a lot of people who feel huge levels of anxiety when thinking about the future.  There are others whose anxiety rises if their future isn’t planned to the nth degree.

My planning horizon is now about 2 hours - and I find it's a lot less stressful that way

Planning starts with thoughts.

Thoughts are not real but they do result in feelings.

Try it now.  Think about a day when we can go on holiday anywhere we choose and masks are a thing of the past.  Notice how that feels.

Now imagine it’s next summer and we’re still in lockdown, haven’t eaten out for 6 months, social life limited to one other household….and notice how that feels.

All the time though, nothing has changed; you’re still sitting reading this but had two emotional experiences based on your thoughts.

Those thoughts have taken mental energy to create.  Think of your body as a phone battery and every thought is like running an app.  The more you think, the more the battery is running down – especially if those thoughts are leading to negative feelings!

Now let’s come back to anxiety.  Anxiety is a response to vulnerability , which is a result of feeling out of control.

Can we control the future?

So the process of thinking about the future is giving your energy to something you can’t control and this in itself can create anxiety. And what we tend to do is think about all the ‘what ifs‘ – all of the scenarios that could happen.  And all the time, that battery is draining.

And perhaps you have had experiences like me where you have planned out every possible ‘what if‘ only for ‘life’ to chuck in the one option you had not considered – and so all that planning, all that energy had been for no purpose because you had to deal with that new variable in the moment anyway!

My new approach, and the one I teach to my clients (and also maps on beautifully to another metaphor I use) is about driving.

If I wanted to drive to Glasgow, I don’t need to plan the whole journey to the nth degree.  I just need a rough plan of the key stepping stones.  So for me that might be Oxford, Birmingham, Manchester, Carlisle….just keep heading North.

My energy though would be focused on the stretch of read ahead of me as that is the bit that I have highest control over.  If brake lights go on, I can react .  If I am in Oxford and hear on the radio that there is a hold up in Manchester, I can’t control that.  And the chances are that by the time I get there, it will have cleared – so I don’t give it my energy.

So my new approach to planning:

– Be clear of where you are heading.  Call it a goal, vision,dream ….and make that really specific.  That is your equivalent of ‘Glasgow’ and keeps you heading in the right direction

– Be aware of key stepping stones along the way – the Oxford/Birmingham/Manchester etc.  These stop you straying too far out the way

– Give your energy, your concentration, your thoughts to the now – because that is where you can be most in control.  And where there is control, there is no room for anxiety.

Where there is control, there is no room for anxiety

My planning zone is about 2 hours.  I know that if I have a client due in an hour, I can be pretty confident they will turn up as otherwise they’d have contacted me to cancel.  So I have allowed my thoughts to focus on that client session knowing it is likely to happen and that energy will be productive.

I haven’t yet thought about the sessions running tomorrow as those are way up the ‘road.’  I may get up and one of the kids are ill, or their dog needs to go to the vet, or, or, or..so any energy planning those sessions will have been wasted energy.

And preserving that energy means that if the proverbial hits the fan, I will have more battery power to respond in that moment to make better decisions than if my battery was flat.

How do you now feel about your planning horizons?  Do you think that bringing it in a bit closer whist also being clear on where you are heading could keep your battery a bit more topped up…?
Let me know what you think……

Caroline Cavanagh is an anxiety specialist  and hypnotherapist in Salisbury, Wiltshire.  She is an author and public speaker and would love to talk to you if you would like to know more about her work.

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