Overcoming a Case of the What Ifs
I often say that anxiety and "what ifs" are like two peas in a pod - Wherever "what ifs" go, anxiety goes.
“What if I say hi to someone, and they don’t say hi back?”
"What if my headache is something worse?"
"What if I don't get a good grade?
“What if I don’t get the job?”
“What if I get sick?”
Anyone may feel anxious just reading through those questions, and when they replay in your mind all. day. long., you may very well experience the feeling of wanting to jump out of your skin!
So, if we know "what if" questions make us anxious, why do we engage in them?
What if questions are essentially your minds way of trying to make negative predictions. We may convince ourselves that if we think through all the possible situations that can arise, we can "mentally prepare" ourselves for whatever outcome may come our way. Now, I say negative predictions, because it's rare to have a "what if" question framed in a positive light - "what if I get an A on this assignment?!" Instead, "What if I don’t get the job,” is probably your mind’s way of saying, “I don’t think I’m going to get the job.” Or “What if I get sick,” is most likely, “I think I’m going to get sick.”
While we may think we are "mentally preparing," how prepared do you actually feel for an event not going as planned? Do you no longer feel sad, or angry, and think, "I prepared so well for this, so I feel good! All that time spent worrying really paid off!"
If you're thinking, "no way!" it shows that the concept of "mental preparation" is, unfortunately, a false promise.
So, what can I do when the "what ifs" strike?
"What ifs" generally fall into the categories of jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing, and mind reading, three cognitive distortions that serve to distort the reality of situations, so that your emotions also become distorted. In other words, the intensity of your emotions becomes disproportionate to the magnitude of the situation.
When we break down "what if I don't get the job?", all we know for sure is that you are going on an interview – to have a conversation about an open position you are interested in. Unless we have a crystal ball (which could potentially be pretty cool!) there doesn't seem to be much concrete evidence that it will go poorly. The same can be applied to most situations that feel unknown - including in social situations when we engage in mind-reading, and feel like we somehow know exactly how others will respond, and what they are thinking. Looking for the evidence that your anxious, and negative thought, is true, can be a helpful step in seeing the situation before you in a more rational, and realistic light. I always joke that I want to hang a giant sign in my office asking,
"What's the Evidence?"
Ok, so maybe I'm not joking ;-)
Now, if by chance a negative prediction does come true (and we can only know that once it happens), it is important to ask how catastrophic the outcome truly is. If you did not get the job, for example, would that be an inconvenience and a disappointment, or would your life truly change for the worse, forever. If you said hi to someone new and he/she brushed you off, how different would your life be from that point forward? Even if your headache turns out to be something of concern, how do we know that the appropriate treatments wouldn't be effective?
Too often, our elevated, negative emotions are based off of thoughts that are either simply not true - with no factual backing, or are taken to an extreme and catastrophized. These thoughts and beliefs often arise more out of habit than anything else, and it takes a conscious effort to practice a.) noticing when these negative, "what if" predictions show up, b.) asking if there's any evidence to support them, c.) whether you are catastrophizing the potential outcome/consequences, and d.) seeing if there's another way to view the situation, outside of an automatic, negative prediction. Could there be positive outcomes that are possible, that perhaps you may be overlooking?
As a potential homework assignment, feel free to make note of the "what if" questions that cross your mind during the day. Practice listing all the evidence that the negative predictions are true (as well as evidence that maybe they are not true), whether you may be catastrophizing a potential outcome, and whether there is another way to view the anxiety-provoking situation.
With daily practice, you can take one step closer towards squashing those powerful "what if" thoughts, and freeing up your mind to be present, focused, and mindful of all the good there is in front of you.
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