I am amazed sometimes by how we can cause our own suffering with ‘what if’ thinking. So often I catch myself in negative thoughts, ‘catastrophic’ thinking. Research has shown that 60-70% of mental chatter is negative. So what can we do about all these doom-and-glooom scenarios? First, notice how they make you feel. Anxious? Overwhelmed? Frightened? Second, it is important to entertain the idea that these thoughts are no less true than imagining a good outcome. Third, to turn these thoughts in a better direction, you can use three quick statements to help calm youself and move on. They are:
1. ‘It’s not happening now.’ Yes, it is possible that a catastrophe could occur in the future, but it’s not happening now. This phrase may help you see that at this moment you are safe.
2. ‘Whatever happens, I can cope.’ This statement reminds you of your own inner resources and gives you the determination to meet the challenges of life.
3. ‘I am causing my own suffering. Could I stop?’ The question, ‘Could I stop?’ helps you see you have a choice.
Of course, if there is a truly a catastrophe headed your way, such as a hurricane, a death or a divorce, the best thing to ask yourself is, ‘How could I best prepare for this event?’ Action steps relieve anxiety.
If you are causing your own suffering with ‘what ifs’, acknowledge those thoughts, tell yourself one of the comforting phrases above and move on. When you find your thoughts returning to your favourite catastrophic fantasies, don’t get discouraged. Changing mental habits is hard and relapses are part of the process. In fact, curbing catastrophizing is a project that can take a lifetime. Still, better self-talk will help you get through the ‘what ifs’ faster. Then you can focus your thoughts on what really matters to you.