The dreaded “what if “ thoughts can dominate the minds of us anxious folk, whether we’re aware of it or not. One of the first tips I like to give my clients is: if a thought begins with “what if” then it can usually be disregarded as nothing more than an anxious thought. It’s funny, we think by dwelling on the “what if” thoughts that we are simply being practical by preparing for all possible outcomes. The secret about “what if” thoughts is that they are rarely productive and are often mentally draining. If you think about it, the phrase “what if” implies a problem that is non-existent yet, how can we solve a problem that doesn’t even exist? We can’t.
So, why do we automatically (or what feels like automatically) hone in on these “what if” thoughts? Because it is human nature for our focus to gravitate toward the negative; it’s a survival mechanism. Our brains are constantly scanning for threats to our survival, even if threats no longer come in the form of saber-toothed tigers but instead present in the form of deadlines at work or final exams in school or keeping track of your family’s schedule at home. Once our brain finds a threat, it places all of our focus and energy toward eliminating that threat. When we are feeling anxious, this tendency to focus on “what if” is heightened and our brain misinterprets “threats” or exaggerates the magnitude of actual threats. If left unchecked, this exaggeration of a natural stress behavior will only increase the body’s anxiety levels. It becomes a viscous cycle.
Becoming aware of “what if” thoughts is the first step to reducing their impact on anxiety levels. One way to do this is to schedule 1-3 worry sessions throughout the day where you can write down all your “what if” thoughts. Not only is writing a good release, it will help to see the nature of the “what if” thoughts on paper. They are often irrational, scattered and disorganized. Seeing these thoughts for what they are, fears, not reality, will help put things into perspective. In addition, humoring, rather than arguing or analyzing, these “what if” thoughts will give them less weight and therefore less power. For example, humor the thought “what if everyone at work can see my pit stains from sweating so much” by saying “oh well, I guess I won’t have to go to the gym tonight because I already got my sweat on”. Humor can be a very effective tool against intrusive “what if” thoughts.