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.
Let me know how this works for you!