So many times I hear children and adults talk about their anxiety and fears in terms of “what if” questions. It sounds like this: “What if I forget my test material?” “What if I don’t get a job by September? ” “What if I don’t get into any college.” This type of questioning creates anxiety because we are thinking about something we don’t want to happen in the future. Our body then reacts to these thoughts as if it were happening now. We are trying to solve problems that haven’t actually happened. Providing answers to “what if” questions is like trying to fill a water balloon with holes in it – You can spend as much time as you want trying to fill it, but it will never work and you will waste a lot of water (energy) in the process. One way to change your thoughts and line of questioning, is to change what you are focusing on.
What I suggest to my clients who are anticipating the future in a negative way is to think about “What IS.” In the case of the person worried about their job, she asked the question this month – in March! An entire 6 months before she needed to be panicked about it. When we talked about what is happening right now, this client realized that she could spend her energy doing things to get a job versus worrying about what might happen in the future. I have been asked by young children “What if I don’t get into a college?” They are so far away from needing to worry about college that they are missing what is happening in the moment and the joy of being a child. I should point out that we rarely think “What if…” in terms of positive outcomes. Have you ever heard someone say “What if I win that race?” , “What if I get a fantastic raise?” I know for me it has been a rare occasion that people worry about success.
Another technique is to do a “reality check.” What I mean by this is to ask yourself if your worry is based in reality. For someone who does a lot of public speaking and is worried about “what if I forget what to say?” they may ask themselves: How many presentations have I given in my life? Out of the 25 presentations how many times have I forgotten what to say? What are the chances that it will happen this time? Usually this is a very small percentage.
So the next time you hear yourself thinking “What if….” Ask yourself “What is happening right now?” It is important for all of us to “keep our head where our feet are” – meaning in the present.
Some facts about “What if” questions:
They are almost always harmful
They are often irrational with no evidence or data to support it
The majority are negative and in most cases the absolute worst case scenario
They take us out of the present and into the future
If we don’t catch these kinds of thoughts quickly, they snowball and get bigger in scope leading to more anxiety.
As we grow up we all have to get use to a lot of new situations. Having some anxiety is a normal part of the process. But how do you know when the anxiety you or your child is feeling is beyond what is a normal? Here are some of the signs to look for:
Out of character behaviors: Your usually compliant child is giving you a hard time and having tantrums. They may suddenly not be acting their age, not want to go on play dates or have difficulty leaving you. Adults may suddenly begin taking back roads instead of getting on the highway. Some adults stop going to parties or getting together with friends because they are socially anxious.
Asking a lot of “What if” questions: This might be around things like getting picked up from school, where you will be during the day, about potential illness or any number of topics. Most adults think “what if” in their heads more than they ask others.
Avoidance: Sudden, strong avoidance to situations that were formerly not an issue. Your child may not want to go over to a friend’s house who has a dog (specific phobia) or go upstairs by themselves. They may not want to go on sleepovers anymore. Children might fear that something bad might happen to you while they are at school, or have just so much anxiety they feel they can’t cope in the school setting. Adults may avoid public places because of fears of contamination, feeling claustrophobic or fear a panic attack coming on.
Reassurance seeking: Incessant and insatiable need for reassurance and/or repeated explanations. Your reassurance to your child never seems to be enough. Adults typically go to professionals for reassurance, i.e. doctors, ER, internists.
Frequent physical complaints: Children begin complaining of nausea, stomach aches, headaches, feeling on edge, or other aches or pains. These feelings may seem to occur Sunday nights, before school on Monday or after a vacation. Adults may become hyper-vigilant about their bodies, noticing any change in heart beat, breathing, pulse, or lumps.
Sleep problems: Your child now wants you to be in their room with them or lay with them until they fall asleep. They may crawl into bed with you in the middle of the night. Some children have a difficult time falling asleep because their mind is just spinning or they have to perform certain rituals before going to bed. They may experience insomnia, nightmares and frequent awakening, followed by exhaustion and drowsiness during the day. Adults may suffer from insomnia because they just can’t shut their mind off. They may wake up a lot in the middle of the night with worries and have difficulty falling back asleep.
Decline in attention, concentration and organization: A lot of energy can be spent worrying about things. This can be distracting and cause children and adults to appear that they are daydreaming. Focusing and concentrating on assignments and lectures may become difficult and children’s grades may slip. Adults may have difficulty at work focusing or concentrating. Others may comment that they don’t think they are listening to them.
Perfectionism: Your child has to have things perfect. Maybe it is the way they write their letters, how they fold their paper, or any number of things. At school they may frequently erase things until they get it “just right.” You may find yourself cleaning excessively, checking and rechecking things, doing tasks over and over again and becoming frustrated.
Adults and parents should consult with a mental health professional if the anxiety is:
Disproportion: The anxiety is excessive and unreasonable
Disruption: Interferes with you or your child’s ability to function normally
Distress: You or your child is distraught and easily upset.
Duration: Level of anxiety has occurred for a least one month
As always, if you have any questions or need some help let me know!