What to do about worrying “what if”

What if I catch Covid-19 and don’t pass the test I need to pass in order to get on my return flight home? That’s an example of a “what if?” question. It is bouncing around in the back of my mind and surfaces periodically. You might have a whole set of what ifs bouncing around, some familiar and some old stand-bys. A few of you might feel disabled by them.

If you follow what if thoughts down an anxiety-filled rabbit hole, it can be trouble. It might  difficult to focus on daily life and tasks. The thoughts might even keep you up at night.

For example:

  • What if I can’t pay the mortgage this month? (money-related)
  • What if I lose my job because I have needed so much time off? (work-related)
  • What-if my dad gets COVID? (health-related)
  • What if I never get this weight off? (image related)
  • What-if my partner cheats on me? (relationship related)

These thoughts can lead to anxiety. But the pattern can lead to what ifs about the pattern!

  • What-if I have a panic attack when I’m driving?
  • What if I shut down and can’t finish my presentation and they fire me?
  • What if I can’t stand leaving the house and my coach finds out?

When are these thoughts problematic?

What-if thoughts are not all bad. They serve a vital purpose.  We have to ask questions about what is coming our direction to decide what to do! Our minds are geared to protect us from danger. That includes considering, “What if something jumps out of the woods while I am driving through this forest?” The other day on our trip, I was fortunately ready to slow down when a mother and father wild boar and at least twelve piglets were huddled by the road, ready to cross in front of us. Things happen!

But intrusive thoughts may start to take up too much space in your mind and overstay their utility. Chronic what if thoughts are a habit we may have learned from a traumatic experience but go over and over again in every possible what if scenario in case it happens again. Or we may have formed our what if habit from some other  thoughts we keep repeating.

What if scenarios can spiral out of control and cause anxiety, worry or stress if they get rolling. If worry-filled thoughts distract you constantly or interfere with productivity and relationships, these ruminations could be a symptom of a disorder with which your therapist can help.

Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder can involve intrusive thoughts like the what ifs but also include:

  • not being able to stop worrying or being nervous
  • knowing you worry too much
  • having a hard time relaxing or concentrating
  • trouble falling asleep
  • constantly feeling on edge

Anxiety can also take a toll on your body, and you may notice physical symptoms like:

  • having a hard time staying asleep
  • being tired all the time
  • unexplained pain
  • headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches
  • sweating a lot for no reason
  • breathlessness
  • needing to go the bathroom often

You probably noticed that a few of these symptoms are also Covid-19 symptoms. Which leads me back to “What if I don’t pass that test and can’t get on the plane?

What can we do about the “what ifs?”

Remember, you’re not alone

Many of my clients are consumed by what ifs. It is such a common issue someone wrote a children’s book about it.

What if thinking is so common, Jesus taught about it.

He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! – Luke 12:22-24

No matter how you choose to deal with your what if worries, you are one of many people in the world feeling the same way right now. At one time, as many as 6 million people in the United States reported having intrusive thoughts.

Note your what ifs, don’t assess them

Reserve your self-criticisms about your thoughts and just note them. If a what if crosses your mind. You could write it down in a notebook your are carrying and get it a step away from what you’d rather turn into. This is a researched way to help lower anxiety.

Call the what ifs what they are

It may be tempting to accept what if thoughts as inevitable truths, something you must suffer or are obligated to consider. They aren’t. They are just thoughts. Thoughts come and go. What you do with the thoughts gives them power. We can manage ruminations if we name them as they come and allow them to pass.

Check your triggers

Once you can call out a what if thought, it can help to take a moment to see if you can pinpoint the source of the unwanted thought.

You might ask yourself:

  • Is something going on right now that often causes me to collect what ifs?
  • Do I feel an old, anxious thought about what’s going on right now?
  • Do I feel unsafe right now in a way I have felt unsafe before?

If we keep mentalizing, we get better at expecting certain situations to get the what ifs going. Like meeting with the boss (“What if I get all nervous?”) or going to a doctor’s appointment (“What if I have cancer?). If you know ahead of time your anxiety could be triggered by a particular situation, you could reach into your anxiety “go bag” and use some of the anxiety reduction strategies that work for you.

Use the three questions

1 — Ask yourself, “What is the worst-case scenario?”

Often, our feelings help us recognize we are caught in the spiral of what-if thinking. We may feel angry, sad, anxious, worried or stressed. Work on tuning into those feelings and you may be able to see the what if thoughts behind them and turn away from them. When you recognize that you are going over and over the what-ifs, stop and ask yourself (out loud often helps): What is the worst-case scenario here?

By doing this you are stopping the re-run of the what-ifs. Usually, it is the re-run after re-run of the thought that causes the anxiety. It is like poking a bruise. If you keep poking it and poking it, it gets worse and never heals.  So, by facing the worst-case scenario you are, in effect, no longer beating yourself up.

Often we find the worst-case scenario is not as bad as what we were thinking. But even if it is worse, at least now you have stopped beating yourself up by going over and over a bad scenario in your mind.

2 — Ask yourself, “Could I handle this?”

The answer is always Yes!  No matter what life throws at you, you can handle it. It may not be pleasant, and in some cases, it may bring hardship, but whatever it is you have the ability to handle it. And if you are walking with Jesus, Jesus is walking with you. Peter taught us, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

What do you think of this example? A woman who had two children was pregnant with a third. She had very bad anxiety over an issue at work. She was re-running scenarios over and over in her mind to the point where she had convinced herself that she was not liked or wanted by her team. To demonstrate how to ask this question her therapist came up with the worst-case scenario: the team forced her out and that she would lose her job.

Then he asked, “Could you handle this?”  Her immediate reply was “No!  How would I be able to afford to live and with another baby on the way!” He pointed out, because she had two dependents and another on the way was exactly the reason why she could handle it.  It would be hard, but she would find a way because she would have to feed her children.

Whatever it is you are facing you can handle it. It may be overwhelming if you decide to face it alone or you are trapped in an unbearable situation, but you probably have more resources than you think you do.

3 — Ask yourself, “What is the best-case scenario?”

This is something we rarely do. Unless we are daydreaming about winning the lottery, or are in the throes of first love, we rarely go into what if scenarios in the positive sense. But just like we have formed the habit of creating what if situations in the negative sense, we can get into the habit of creating what if situations which are positive.

When you take the scenario, you have been playing over and over in the negative, take the same scenario and see the best possible outcome. Then notice how you feel doing this.

The aim is to feel good.  Initially, since we are not in the habit of thinking positively, it might take some practice. I have client who feels guilty for being dishonestly positive when they try this! But the effort is worth it. We need to remember how much control we have over our thoughts. We can’t control what others will say or do, or what circumstances come our way, but we can choose how we react to them. Our thoughts do not need to control us. We can get into the habit of turning into our best-case scenarios and moving with the Spirit into blessing.

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