You’ve probably been there before: Life is going really well. You’ve got a new boo, new job, or cool new place, and you know you should be chilling—but you can’t shake the feeling that things are bound to suck soon, asking yourself, "why do I feel anxious for no reason?" Can’t your brain just let you be happy?!
Part of the reason we struggle to enjoy the here-and-now is, in some ways, a cultural problem (thanks, capitalism!). “We live in this culture where we're taught to always say, ‘Well, what's next?’” says licensed clinical psychologist Nicole Hayes, PhD. Thus, “relaxing or enjoying the present moment feels like the opposite of what we should be doing.” There’s always more work to do, some other accomplishment or made-up life milestone to check off. “It’s this way of thinking that only when you get to a certain point will you feel safe enough to experience joy,” explains therapist Amalia Miralrío, LMSW, LCSW, founder of Amity Detroit Counseling.
Though we all feel this pressure to some extent, if you frequently experience anxiety, you’re even more likely to find reasons that you can’t enjoy the present moment. That’s because your brain is stuck in “overbearing parent” mode, Miralrío says. It’s basically working overtime trying to identify—and protect you from—whatever unknown threat, curveball, or to-do it thinks you won’t see coming. The idea is that if you prepare for the worst-case scenario, it may not suck as much when you’re faced with it, she explains.
For a lot of people, prepping for the worst is a trauma response, says Miralrío. Say, for example, you had a really joyful childhood until one day you found out your parents were getting divorced. “You’re flooded with an incredible amount of really difficult emotions and experience a tremendous amount of loss,” she says. “And then maybe you develop this story that you should have been paying attention because at least you could have seen it coming.” (Any trauma you experience in adulthood can have the same impact.) And while that’s a very valid trauma response, going full-on apocalyptic in the face of any uncertainty doesn’t actually protect you against whatever bad thing might happen in the future.
Even without experiencing a traumatic event, your brain can become hypervigilant based on the ways you learned to experience and express joy (or not) when you were growing up, Miralrío explains. If you grew up surrounded by “we work really hard” or “we don’t let anyone mess with us” vibes, your brain might associate joy or ease with laziness, unpreparedness, or weakness. The problem is that being on edge all the time keeps you from enjoying the life you have right now, says Miralrío.
So, with all of that in mind, if you’re constantly convincing yourself that things can’t possibly be (or stay) this good, here’s what you can do.
Start with self-compassion.
First things first: When you catch yourself catastrophizing, remind yourself that this is not a character or personality flaw. This habit is just your brain trying to look out for you. Acknowledge this lil fact and then give yourself some grace and self-compassion and you might feel significantly less tense, says Miralrío.
Get back into your body.
If your trust-nothing thoughts pull you out of whatever you’re doing and into your head, use your five senses to ground back down into the present moment. “Say you’re taking a bath to relax, but you keep thinking you should be doing something else or that you must be missing something,” says Dr. Hayes. “Take a minute to feel the sensation and temperature of the water on your skin, tune into music you might have playing, smell the bath bomb or soap.” This literally pulls your attention out of the future you’re trying to predict and back into the here and now.
Pick a go-to phrase.
Another way to get back into the present moment and out of the what-if spiral is to come up with a phrase you can repeat to yourself, Miralrío explains. These can be comforting reminders that your thoughts aren’t as real as what’s going on right now. You can try something like, “That was then, this is now,” “I am safe,” or “The unexpected can be beautiful,” says Miralrío.
Remember that worrying about the future doesn’t change the future
When you’re seriously stressing about something terrible happening, remember that your doomsday prepper brain is just trying to gain a sense of control. Thing is, we (sadly) do not always have the power to affect the outcome of whatever it is we’re freaking out about. Thus, all that you're impacting is how you feel in THIS moment—which is more worried than you could be. Once you realize that, it can be pretty freeing, says Miralrío.
Practice being happy.
If feeling good often makes you feel guilty or worried, don’t expect that to change overnight. But you can retrain your brain to trust that everything isn’t doomed by doing little things that make you happy and being super mindful about it. “Start with something really small like eating an ice cream cone,” says Miralrío. If guilt or hypervigilance or negativity bubbles up, practice letting that shit go and getting back to those sprinkles as quickly as possible. As you feel more comfortable enjoying these small experiences, you can level up to bigger ones, like taking a day off or going out with your friends.
Talk to someone.
When you feel like you can never quite decompress, it’s time to talk to someone, says Miralrío. If your overprotective brain is making you skeptical of anything in your life that feels easy, joyful, or just plain good, it could be a sign of an anxiety disorder—especially if you’ve lived like this for months or years.
A licensed mental health pro can help you work through any traumas and fun-sucking beliefs, and help you develop tools for managing anxiety, so that you can start enjoying your life for real.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.