One of the common thought patterns that leads to anxiety is “What If” thinking?
We’ve all done this from time to time. It is the kind of negative predictive thinking that goes something like this:
What if Enterovirus spreads to our area? What if it hits my kids’ schools? Will I still send them to school? What if my kids catch it and get seriously ill? What if one of my children dies?
“What if” thinking starts with a relatively plausible worry and then mushrooms from there into a huge paralyzing fear. If we do not learn how to stop our “What if” thinking it can begin to limit us and debilitate us in life.
Too much “What if” thinking turns the world and even everyday activities into scary ventures. Before we know it we are in constant anxiety and fear.
And the worse part of all? We are worrying about things that likely will never happen.
And even if they do happen we still may not have any ability to do anything about it.
“What if” thinking can be a pretty big struggle for me. Sometimes I am able to move past it and sometimes not. The times I have been able to move past it, there are a couple of different tactics that seem to be helpful in reducing its power.
The first tactic is to actually let the “What if?” go to its extreme conclusion and then stay with that possibility for a while.
This actually happened with me last night. I was putting some leftovers in the freezer and had to juggle some things around to make them fit. While holding the leftover filled tupperware with my still healing left arm, I began to feel that familiar burning sensation in my shoulder. I quickly set the heavier than I thought they were leftovers down with my left hand and began to run through my what ifs.
What if I aggravated my sore shoulder again? What if it flares up? What if it goes into spasms the way it did last week when I felt this burning? What if I get another migraine as a result? What if I can’t handle my responsibilities of teaching yoga and caring for my kids because of the pain?
Because these worries were actually possibilities and none of them involved anything totally catastrophic I just kind of let myself deal with the worst consequence. If the pain flared up and I was laid up for a day, I would be frustrated and inconvenienced, but I could deal with it. I would ice and take pain relievers. I would probably have to either cancel my yoga class or get a sub. I may have to call someone to help me with my kids. Again, it would be unpleasant, but my life would go on and eventually the pain would end. (As it turns out I am just a little tender today. Life has gone on almost normally).
The second tactic I use to deal with “What if” thinking I actually like even better than the first, though it is harder to practice.
I have found the best way to counteract “What if” thinking is to constantly make myself stay in the present moment.
I practiced this while taking a plane ride this past summer. Because the end of my “what if” thinking in plane rides ends with me dying in a fiery crash, if I were to stay in that end of my fears moment I would have a panic attack and want to escape from the plane. So when my “What ifs” came up during the plane flight, I just kept drawing myself back to the present moment.
When I worried about having to fly through bad weather, I would remind myself that the skies we were currently flying through were slightly cloudy, but otherwise fine. When I worried the turbulence we hit would get worse, I would remind myself that the turbulence we were experiencing at the moment was quite small and that I was just fine. Basically whatever fear I projected out with, I just kept reminding myself that the bad thing had not happened yet and for the moment things were dandy. When I could just stay in that dandy moment for minute after minute I began to relax into the hour ride. There were moments when I was actually even able to enjoy flying through the evening sky instead of panicking about what might go wrong.
The practice of staying in the present moment, which is a part of Mindfulness practice, if truly life changing. It is in no way easy, but when we can make ourselves at least try to be in the present instead of projecting forward with fear or drawing back to hurts of the past, our anxiety and depression are eased.
Do you struggle with ‘What if” thinking? If so, how do you manage it?