Travel to the Future to Put Worries in Perspective

A time travel exercise that will help counterbalance today’s worry.

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The core feature of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is uncontrollable, persistent worry. People with GAD sometimes think that their worry is helping them. But while we are hard-wired to experience anxiety so that we can keep ourselves safe, the worry typically experienced by someone with GAD is excessive or out of proportion to actual risk.

Imagine the case of Sherry*, a lawyer in her late 20s who has been working at a large corporate law firm for the last three years.

In college and then law school, Sherry worried a little about being able to get her assignments done on time, but channeled this worry into productive problem-solving. At the start of each semester, Sherry would pull out her calendar and carefully plot out a plan for her workload. She’d diligently stick to it, meeting weekly and monthly goals. In the end, she never had much trouble meeting her work deadlines.

At the law firm, however, her worry about meeting deadlines has amplified. She knows on some level that her belief, “I will never be able to get my work done on time,” isn’t necessarily true – that it’s at least a little bit distorted – but it runs through her mind constantly. Unlike law school, she knows that at the firm, more work can be piled on unexpectedly and deadlines can change in an instant. Thinking about this makes her stomach hurt and her heart race. Sometimes it keeps her up at night and the next day’s exhaustion makes it that much harder to work effectively and efficiently.

There are many different ways that Sherry could choose to work with this thought. Within a cognitive behavioral therapy framework, Sherry would be advised to challenge this sort of belief.

One way to challenge a cognitive distortion is to take a ride in mental time machine. Going forward in time can put a clarifying lens on a situation, in this example helping Sherry to feel better about what’s happening now and imagining that she and others will care less about what’s happened in the future.

Simply put, Sherry might be able to put her worry in a better, more realistic perspective.

To put her mind in a time machine, Sherry must ask herself two sets of questions about the idea that she will never be able to get her work done on time:

  1. How will I feel about this in: 1 week, 1 month, 6 months, 1 year, 5 years?
  2. Why might I not feel as bad about this then [noting specific time point] as I do now?

Let’s imagine some of what Sherry might come up during her time travel.

Looking even just one week into the future, she might know she’d feel a little less worried because she will have made some headway with the work in the interim and, if she needs help she could then ask for additional staffing on the project.

Glimpsing ahead by six months, Sherry might say that she would no longer be anxious about the current project at all because it will be in the rear view mirror. She will be onto the next case, with no time to worry about this one (Though hopefully, she will make the time to remember that she survived, her work was appreciated, and she was assigned more cases because of her positive efforts.).

In five years, Sherry may or may not even remember how worried she was about getting this work done today. She imagines that this individual case will sit on a long list of cases that she’s worked on by that point and will carry less professional weight for her. She is certain that her current colleagues, if she chooses to stay at this firm – or her future colleagues, if she seeks out a different job, will evaluate her abilities as a lawyer based on her work ethic, style and performance more broadly. They will care more about how she works on a team and how she thinks through certain problems of a case more than if she was able or unable to meet one deadline for one case five years ago.

When consumed with worry, a person with GAD has the instinct to either look to the past for reasons to justify worry in the present or to catastrophize about the future. This time-travel exercise is a way to keep from dwelling on the past and to encourage broader, more balanced thinking about the future.


Leahy, RL. Cognitive Therapy Techniques: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: The Guilford Press, 2003.

*The case of Sherry is fictional.*

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