Following a traumatic event, a person may develop a sense of a foreshortened future, which is currently considered an avoidance symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People who experience this symptoms feel as though their life will somehow be cut short without any real explanation why. They may also feel as though they won't be able to reach milestones in their life, such as a career, marriage or children.
A sense of a foreshortened future can vary in terms of severity. Some people may have just a mild sense that their life will be cut short, whereas others may have a specific prediction regarding the length of their life span and are completely convinced of their premature death. This symptom can be very difficult to cope with and may lead to isolation, hopelessness, helplessness and depression. However, there are some steps you can take to reduce the severity of this symptom. A number of potential coping strategies are described below.
- Practice mindfulness of thoughts. Believing that your life will be cut short following a traumatic event makes sense. You may have feared for your life or even come close to death as a result of your traumatic event. Further, following a traumatic event, our assumptions about the world as a safe and secure place are shattered. People are forced to come to terms with their own mortality. As a result, the belief that your life will be cut short likely feels very true; however, there is really no way to determine your life span. Consequently, it can be helpful to be mindful of those thoughts about your premature death. Notice your thoughts as simply objects in your mind, as opposed to the truth. Doing so will prevent you from connecting with those thoughts, thus reducing the likelihood of hopelessness and helplessness.
- Identify and engage in more positive activities. A sense of a foreshortened future can increase the risk for depression. Therefore, it is very important to identify and increase the extent to which you take part in positive activities. It may be particularly useful to engage in activities that you used to enjoy before the traumatic event occurred. You may not notice an immediate change in your emotions or thoughts. That is normal. Keep at it. Being more active, especially in positive activities, will eventually improve your mood and can prevent depression.
- Pay attention to the choices you make. We often make choices based on our emotions. Anxiety may tell us to avoid something. Sadness may tell us to isolate. Anger may tell us to retaliate. Although it is definitely important to listen to our emotions, they may not always lead us down the best path. Instead, it is important to think about what kind of life you want to live and make choices that are based on that. For example, if you want to live a life where you are a compassionate and caring person, make choices each and every day to engage in a behavior that is consistent with those values. Doing so will create a sense of agency and purpose, as well as increase the feeling that you are living a fulfilling life.
- Connect with others. A sense of a foreshortened future can cause people to isolate themselves from others. Given this, the best thing you can do to counter this is connect with others and establish social support. The more meaningful relationships you have in your life, the more fulfilling your life may begin to feel.
- Reduce avoidance. Following a traumatic event, it is very natural to avoid certain activities or places. The problem with avoidance is that avoidance often leads to more avoidance. When we avoid something, we are delivering the message to our brain that a situation is not safe. The more we avoid, the more our world feels unsafe, which will then lead to us avoiding more and more situations. Therefore, it can be important to take steps to approach situations or activities that you want to avoid. Of course, you don't want to approach situations that may be objectively unsafe (for example, running alone in a park at night); however, you do want to engage in activities that you used to feel comfortable doing before the traumatic event occurred. This can be difficult to do, as anxiety and fear will likely occur. This fear and anxiety will eventually reduce. However, when you start this process, it may be helpful to bring along a trusted and supportive friend.
- Take care of yourself. Another way to combat the sense of a foreshortened future is to engage in behaviors that are about valuing your life. Schedule time to pamper yourself or engage in self-soothing and compassionate activities. Exercise. Eat well. Taking care of yourself can have a tremendous impact on your emotions and thoughts.
Increase Your Chances of SuccessMany of the coping strategies listed above are easier said than done. Be patient and take your time. Reward yourself for any small amount of progress that you make in reducing your sense of foreshortened future. It may also be helpful to seek treatment for your PTSD. By reducing your symptoms of PTSD in general, you will likely notice that your sense of foreshortened future also reduces in intensity. A therapist can also provide you with support as you use the coping skills described above.
There are a number of effective treatments for PTSD; however, finding a mental health provider can be an overwhelming and stressful task if you do not know where to look. Fortunately, there are several websites that provide free searches to help you find appropriate mental health providers in your area.
Blake, D.D., Weathers, F.W., Nagy, L., Kaloupek, D.G., Klauminzer, G., & Charney, D.S., et al. (1990). The Clinician Administered PTSD Scale. Boston: National Center for PTSD-Behavioral Science Division.