Managing the Dreaded "What If?"

Anxiety often starts with the words "What if.....?" Sometimes this can lead to a plan for dealing with possible situations that may occur in the future.  But since many fearful fantasies start with "what if?", a few basic tools can be very useful to keep in mind.

  • The first suggestion is simple to say but often hard to do: Stop!  Once you recognize that "what if" is a form of fantasy about a future place and time, try to come back to the present.  After all, this is the only moment that is always with you. Remembering and taking full advantage of the "here and now" can defeat the tyranny of the "there and then".
  • The second useful response to "what if" is simply to answer it positively. Try to avoid the tendency to catastrophize, which is thinking about the worst possible outcome. When "what if I get fired" meets "then I'll get another job", anxiety can be replaced with optimism. Choosing a positive answer may be nothing more than "if it happens then I'll deal with it", but that simple statement can yield a greater sense of calm and confidance.  I sometimes tell my Atlanta counseling and psychotherapy clients to follow "what if” with “if, then”.
  • Often a good response to an anxious “what if” is simply to physically do something different. Take a walk, go buy your groceries, do some ironing, work out or do just about any other activity that changes your body's metabolism or your brains focus.
  • It can help to balance a negative “what if” with a positive one. If you keep imagining a bad outcome try to follow this with some good ones. Even if you don't easily believe it, consider it anyway. Remember, most bad things we worry about never happen.
  • Talk about your worries with someone. Many people hold in their anxieties because they are ashamed or fearful that others won't understand, won't care or will judge them.  But confiding in another person brings some much-needed air and light to what otherwise grows in the darkness of isolation.
  • Another strategy is to combat the cancer of "what if" with a healthy dose of "so what?"  While an anxious "what if" is very serious, "so what" breeds optimism and confidance. It creates the possibility that things may not be so bad even if they do occur.
  • Simple faith can work wonders. Fear and faith are like oil and water. A jar can't have more of one without pouring out the other. There are many forms of faith that provide comfort and strength in the face of anxiety and uncertainty.

Of course some sources of anxiety are both realistic and serious. Thinking about how to avoid, manage or overcome dire possibilities has been necessary to human survival. When "what if" spurs productive action to insure a successful outcome then it is an important mental skill to possess.  But when obsessive worrying about negative outcomes causes undue fear, pessimism and loss of enjoyment in the present moment then it worth putting strategies like these into action.