When we begin to explore the thoughts that accompany feelings of anxiety we find the prevalence of the dreaded ‘What if…?’ If a thought begins with ‘What if’ then it can usually be identified as a purely anxious thought. Dwelling on such thoughts gives us the illusion of being practical by preparing for all possible outcomes, but none of us know what will happen in the future and ‘What if’ thoughts never seem to involve a good outcome! The reality of ‘What if’ thoughts is that they are rarely productive and often mentally draining. If you think about it, the phrase ‘What if’ implies a problem that doesn’t yet exist: how can we solve a problem that doesn’t even exist?
So, why do we automatically (or what feels like automatically) focus on these ‘What if’ thoughts? Because it is part of our human nature to gravitate toward the negative: it’s a survival mechanism. When our brains find a threat, we focus our energy on getting rid of that threat, and if we are feeling anxious, this tendency to focus on ‘What if’ increase. Our brains misinterpret ‘threats’ or exaggerates the magnitude of actual threats. This exaggeration of stress behavior increases the body’s anxiety levels.
Becoming aware of ‘What if’ thoughts allows us to begin to reduce their impact on anxiety levels. A good way to do this is to set aside a number of 10-minute worry sessions throughout the day where you can write down all your ‘What if’ thoughts. Writing can be a good release and it helps to see the ‘What if’ thoughts on paper; illuminating their irrational and disorganized nature. This helps us identify these thoughts for what they are, fears, not reality.