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Struggling to cope during the pandemic? Your ‘future anxiety’ could be to blame

A new study has revealed how our ‘future anxiety’ levels – aka, the extent to which someone might worry about the weeks or months ahead – could be playing a role in our responses to the pandemic, and why improving our psychological resilience could be a solution for those of us struggling to cope.

Whether you’ve suffered from anxiety in the past or have experienced it for the first time over the last six months, the coronavirus pandemic has certainly given all of us plenty to worry about. 

From concerns about our friends and family and anxiety about catching the virus itself to facing financial uncertainty and job instability, it’s hardly surprising that so many of us are feeling on edge.

However, while some people have dealt with these heightened anxiety levels with relative ease, others have struggled to cope with the additional worry of the pandemic. So why is this?

According to a new paper published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the different impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on our overall wellbeing can be at least partly explained by one key factor: a person’s ‘future anxiety’ levels. 

Loosely defined as the levels of concern, worry and negative thinking someone has towards the future, the study suggests that those with a ‘future anxious’ personality type – aka a tendency to fear and worry about future events – are more likely to show significant drops in their wellbeing as a result of the pandemic.

Your future anxiety levels also dictate the extent to which you perceive Covid-19 as a serious threat; the study found that people who are more conscious of the severity, spread and impact of the pandemic are more likely to have higher levels of future anxiety. 

The study – which was based on an online survey of 711 adults between the ages of 18 and 49 – also sets out a framework to help people identify their ‘future anxiety’ levels. To do this, the scientists asked the participants to rate themselves on a scale of one (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), for the following six questions:

  1. I am afraid that the problems which trouble me now will continue for a long time
  2. I am uneasy about possible mishaps
  3. I am afraid that changes in the economic-political situation will threaten my future
  4. I am afraid that the healthcare system situation will threaten my future
  5. I am disturbed by the possibility of serious illness
  6. I fear I will fail to overcome mounting difficulties

They then asked participants to add up their results to assess where their scores measured up on the ‘future anxiety spectrum’ they devised. 

However, the study wasn’t all bad news for people who do score on the higher end of the future anxiety spectrum. Although higher future anxiety levels mean your wellbeing is more likely to be affected during the pandemic, there is a personality trait that can be nurtured to help negate these negative effects – psychological resilience.

According to the study, people with higher psychological resilience – aka, the ability to adapt to or deal with difficult conditions – were less likely to suffer with future anxiety, whether or not they perceived the threat of the virus to be big or small. In this way, even if you tend to be more conscious of threat and see the dangerous side of a situation, nurturing your psychological resilience can help you to lower your future anxiety levels and feel better overall. 

So, how can we become more psychologically resilient during the coronavirus pandemic? According to the scientists, there are a number of different strategies we can all take to help ourselves in the long run. 

Firstly, there’s mindfulness. The study explains: “There is evidence that mindfulness as a trait – the disposition to pay attention in the present moment – positively links with resilience. This mindfulness trait can be increased through mindfulness-based interventions, leading to mental health benefits.”

Alongside the kind of traditional mindfulness-based interventions mentioned in the study – such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) – there are a number of things we can all do on a daily basis to nurture mindfulness. These include meditation and mindfulness apps (perfect if you need a daily reminder), breathing exercises and engaging in activities such as mindful cooking or mindful hiking. 

The study also recommends exercise, better sleep and spiritual health as ways to foster strong psychological resilience. 

Although it’s important to remember that managing anxiety is never easy, this study serves as a powerful reminder that our psychological tendencies aren’t fixed, and there are things we can do to help ourselves in the long run.

At a time when so many of us are struggling with our mental health, learning more about what’s going on inside our head (and equipping ourselves with the knowledge we need to deal with whatever that is) is one of the best things we can do for our overall wellbeing – and thanks to this study, we’ve got one more tool under our belt.

Coping with anxiety

If you’re dealing with feelings of anxiety and worry during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to understand that this is a completely normal response to the current situation. However, if you’re looking for a way to alleviate some of those feelings, here are three articles that might help.

  • 4 tips for dealing with anxiety, from someone who lives with it
  • Free online therapy and wellbeing resources you can access in a few clicks
  • How to handle health anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website or visit the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations and the NHS Every Mind Matters resource hub.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected]

Images: Getty/Unsplash

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