WHAT AND IF – two innocent little words, and perfectly harmless on their own. But put them together and...
It’s like unleashing the power of the atom!
A catastrophic chain reaction of ‘what ifs’.
Misusing your imagination
Worrying is the type of thinking that’s often responsible for the feelings and emotions we experience as anxiety. Worrying can be useful when used to find solutions to clear, well defined problems; however, worrying is all too often applied to problems that are too vague or too distant to currently be solved. Thinking soon becomes very negative and extreme, throwing up lots of possible ‘what ifs’. These are exactly the sort of thoughts that cause a person to experience anxiety because they produce:
- Helplessness – Insufficient information to deal with the situation.
- Over stimulation – Too much information, or information overload.
- Incongruity – Conflicting information.
- Unpredictability – Having an uncertain outcome.
The imagination knows no bounds, and when you really put your mind to it, I bet you can conjure up an almost infinite number of possible disasters. The thing is, only one outcome will happen, and it probably won’t be the one you thought of. An awful lot of thinking and planning has therefore gone to waste. That’s why it’s much better to postpone – not necessarily forget about – the problem until you have more information and a better chance of finding the right solution.
Remember, if a problem is that vague, it’s too far away to cause any immediate harm. It’s quite alright, therefore, to leave if for a while and focus on something else; something you can deal with. Not only will this distract your mind away from those troublesome thoughts, it shows you that you can deal with things at the right time, and knowing that can be very empowering.
Common among most forms of anxiety is the fact that the worrying is about something that may possibly happen in the future. Being future based, the outcome is uncertain and cannot yet be determined; however, in the absence of certainty, ‘what ifs’ are plentiful. A definite answer to all those scenarios is needed before the person can relax and let the thoughts drop.
Thoughts spiral round and round in the mind and this is known as rumination; just like the way a cow chews the same bit of grass for hours. Anxiety makes a person do that in their head, and the only way out of that trap is to do something that makes the mind think of something else instead; distraction.
If allowed to really take hold, this relentless rumination about problems too vague to be resolved can eventually lead to depression. The situation feels hopeless, and eventually life itself feels hopeless. When life feels hopeless and a person feels overwhelmed, the natural human response is to withdraw from it; to withdraw into depression.
Many outcomes are possible at this point in time, and for some reason the anxious person tends to settle on the most catastrophic... don’t you!
This particular outcome – although extremely unlikely – is so terrible that it induces fear at the mere thought of it, and fear starts to trigger the ‘fight or flight’, response.
This approach serves a person well when faced with a real potential threat. In caveman times it was wise that Ugg assumed the rustling in the bushes might be a hungry lion. If it turned out to be a gust of wind, nothing was lost. It is, however, less than helpful when trying to evaluate a present day problem in the mind.
Now this is something I just know you’ll be good at because how often do you imagine disasters happening at every turn? The thing is, you probably do it without consciously thinking about it.
I bet you begin to contemplate a forthcoming event and your imagination instantly throws up a handful of disasters. Then your mind responds to those thoughts with feelings of anxiety, and in some cases fear. The trouble is, this all happens in an instant, and subconsciously; or below your normal level of awareness.
When you actually become aware of exactly what those disasters are, you’ll probably find they aren’t very likely to happen at all. Many will seem ridiculous even. So if you really must insist on catastrophising, may I suggest you take a couple of moments to deliberately ‘consciously’ think about those disasters...
And while you’re at it, think of some more, only this time make them even more preposterous. Make them so utterly crazy that you cannot possibly take them seriously. You simply have to laugh at them.
Go on... have a good chuckle!
It’s hard to be scared of something funny, isn’t it – something you can’t take seriously – and you begin to realise that the world couldn’t possibly be as bad as your imagination can make it.
Some people like to answer ‘what if’ with, “So what!” That promptly puts the nagging thought firmly in its place, don’t you think?
“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” said Piglet. “Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh, after careful deliberation.
Anxiety and ‘what ifs’ are mainly about planning and preparation; trying to foresee all imaginable hazards so as to be able to safely deal with them, or avoid them altogether. The trouble with this is that a person is always planning for disasters in the future; disasters that will probably never happen. It’s all about ‘avoiding’ in the future, which means that nothing is ever achieved in the present. This in itself can become demoralising, and what started as a ‘comfort zone’ gradually becomes a ‘velvet prison’.
The thing about avoiding is that it keeps the mind focused exactly where it doesn’t need to be; focused on the very thing that’s causing your anxiety and fear. This is because the mind has to first conjure up the image before it knows what to avoid.
Because you always seem to get more of what you focus your attention on, it’s much better to focus on what you do want to happen, and on the state of mind you would like to be in.
Don’t believe me?
I wonder how much unnecessary fear and anxiety you create just by continually thinking about it!
What if it doesn’t
Do you remember Pooh’s wise words to Piglet, above?
What if it doesn’t happen; which is, after all, the most likely outcome anyway.
While it’s not happening, you’re wasting a lot of valuable time and mental energy trying to solve a problem that isn’t there; a problem that will likely never be there.
If you knew it wouldn’t happen I’m sure you could happily get on with your day, so why not do that now? After all, what if you waste your entire day worrying about nothing? Now, that would be something to worry about!
And in the unlikely event that it does become reality, it’s never as bad as you thought; and you know that from experience. At that point the problem is clear to see – no longer a vague ‘what if’ – and effective solutions are then easier to find.
“Supposing it didn't,” said Pooh, after careful deliberation.
Considering the fact that he was rather a small bear, Winnie the Pooh is a creature of great charm and wisdom. Although intended for young children, many older children – ie adults – find his stories enchanting to read.
Pooh holds a special charm for me because he lived and played in the forest near here.
What do you want to do now
- Lifestyle changes
Three key areas of your life that indirectly effect anxiety.
- Anxiety and how to calm it
Is your life plagued by constant what ifs? Learn how to banish them.
What about one of these to help you overcome anxiety?
- Overcome anxiety
More pages about anxiety and how to calm it.
A problem shared is a
CD & DVD Library
Pass Through Panic
Dr Claire Weekes
Free yourself from anxiety and fear.
In this eight-part radio series originally broadcast in 1967, Dr Claire Weekes – bestselling author of Self Help for Your Nerves – speaks intimately and compassionately about how to overcome panic disorders, anxiety, phobias, agoraphobia, and depression. She coaches you on how to ‘pass through panic’ to reach a place of strength and optimism.
Her revolutionary approach is remarkably simple and effective, and continues to be recommended by medical and psychological communities throughout the world.
Original radio broadcast: 2 hours on 2 CDs.