How your perceptions of the future affect your mental health

About 10 years ago, I spoke during a community workshop about how to become a blogger. I talked about my Meant to Live blog and why I decided to write about mental health. And I will always remember, at the end of the session, a woman came up to me. She looked like she was in her 60s or 70s. She had long bright red hair and wore an eccentric outfit — exactly how I picture myself looking at that age. 

She thanked me for being open about my mental illness, and she confided in me. She told me that she suffered from severe depression and how it prohibited her from maintaining relationships. She told that she lived alone, was unemployed, and always wanted to be a writer but nothing ever came of it.

I can't remember what I said to her, but I do remember having this intense thought right then — "This is going to be me someday." I talked to this woman — a complete stranger — for about five minutes a decade ago. Yet, I still think about her all the time. I wonder what happened to her. I wonder if things got better for her. And I still get that completely ridiculous and irrational thought, "Was she my future self, time traveling to visit me?"

When you're prone to anxiety or depression, it's easy to be fearful of the future and obsess over the past. For me, it comes in thoughts like, "No one could ever love you. No one could ever want to stay with you. You won't amount to anything, and you're going to die alone. You have no purpose; you have no future."

When you struggle with your mental health, it's easy to ignore the things that are good —even great — in your life and instead only focus on the negative. No, it's not because you're ungrateful. And no, it's not because you don't realize there are people who have it worse off than you do. You're feeling this way because you struggle with a mental illness — a chemical imbalance in your brain. And it's not your fault. 

There have been many studies about how past experiences — especially traumatic experiences — can affect a person's mental health. Not as much research has been done about the relationship between depression and your perceptions of the future. But it has been proven that clinically depressed and anxious individuals more frequently expect negative outcomes than positive ones. 

According to Aaron Beck, an American psychiatrist who was regarded as the father of cognitive behavioral therapy, "a negative view of the world, of the self, and of the future are the hallmark symptoms of depression." He also suggested that these were not only symptoms of depression, but they also caused depression. 

So, what can you do to change the trajectory of your thoughts? 

One thing I do is ask the people in my life to throw out some rational words at me when I can't do it for myself (I'm asking you, reader, this too. Please give me some rational thoughts!) Talking to a loved one is always what helps me most.

It's also essential to practice mindfulness in order to ground yourself back into the present. Maybe that's walking outside — feeling the grass under your feet, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, blah blah all the other clich├ęs that actually do help — or practicing meditation and yoga (I need to do this more. I have the flexibility of Tin Man).

Another thing: Make sure you're getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can worsen anticipatory anxiety. I know that's easier said that done because, obviously, when you're feeling anxious or depressed, it's more difficult to sleep. For me, I take the anti-depressant Trazodone to help me sleep. Over-the-counter, valerian root and melatonin supplements can also help with insomnia. 

And, most importantly, if you are feeling this way, try to think about the things you can control today.

For me, I can't control if I will ever be published or be a successful New York Times best-selling author someday. But I can control if I write. So, right now, I'm writing. 

For you, if you hate your job, start applying for a new job; if you hate where you live, look into moving somewhere else; if you feel alone, participate in an activity or go online to try and find like-minded people — or maybe even the love of your life. I know I can't control where I'll be at 60 years old. But I can control where I am today, at 33 years old. 

"All we can strive for is good enough for now," writes Samanee Mahbub, blogger for Medium. "I discovered that our sense of resilience and perseverance comes out when you need it. We don’t have a choice but to make shit happen. And so we make it happen. ... And in case you forget, hey, you can do it. You are smart, kind, and brave. I believe that you got it in you."

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