How to Use Mental Contrasting to Reduce Anxiety about the Future

Anxiety about the future is not uncommon – particularly for those with driving anxiety and driving fears – but that doesn’t mean you have to sit around and live with it. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that fears about future events can be reduced with a visualization technique known as mental contrasting.

What’s Mental Contrasting?

Developed by New York University researcher and study author Gabriele Oettingen, mental contrasting refers to generating thoughts about the future and then contrasting them with present circumstances. Those thoughts about the future end up impacting current behaviors.

When people have positive thoughts about future success, they are likely to engage in low amounts of effort in their current circumstances. After all, they already think success is forthcoming, so there may be no reason to expend extra effort to achieve it.

When people have thoughts about a desired future, but realize there are obstacles standing in the way of their desires, they tend to find clarity about what they really want and what’s standing in the way. They then tend to invest effort into overcoming the obstacles and attaining their goals.

Thoughts of Feared Future 

The study took mental contrasting in a different direction. Instead of focusing on thoughts about a desired future, thoughts were focused on a feared future. Since people were able to pinpoint the obstacles that prevented their desired future from coming true, the idea was that people would be able pinpoint the obstacles that were preventing their feared future from coming true.

Once people saw the likelihood of their feared future becoming reality was slim, they would be better able to approach their fears head-on instead of fueling their anxieties.

It worked. People involved in the study felt less anxious after mentally contrasting a feared, negative future with the positive reality of their current circumstances.

The Study Experiments

The study involved more than 400 participants and two experiments. The first experiment asked participants to imagine an epidemic in the future.

  • One group was only asked to imagine the epidemic
  • The other group was asked to imagine the epidemic, along with the positive reality of current circumstances that was preventing this feared epidemic from ever coming true

The second group had lower levels than anxiety than the first.

The second experiment was similar, asking participants to imagine a feared future event in their own lives. The group that was told to imagine the feared future event along with the present reality that would serve to prevent the event had lower levels of anxiety than the group only asked to imagine the event.

Mental Contrasting for Driving Fears

Since mental contrasting worked so well in the experiments, it may be a useful tool to use on driving anxiety and driving fears. Instead of simply thinking about a feared future behind the wheel of a car, include thoughts of current reality that are preventing that feared future from coming true.

Thoughts that involve things like safe driving techniques, a reliable vehicle and knowing your route may be helpful to show you many obstacles are standing in the way from that feared future from ever materializing.