If we want to make ourselves anxious, a good way of doing it is by asking ourselves, “What if _________ happens?” Our brains are wonderful tools that can help us imagine and predict things. This quality separates us from other mammals and allows us to create inventions, solve problems before they occur, and anticipate possible consequences of our actions. On the down side, we can imagine all sorts of horrible things happening. Sometimes our brains get stuck in “What If” Land. Have you ever visited there? I know I have.
What if I fail?
What if they don’t like me?
What if my car breaks down on the way to that meeting?
What if I forget what I’m supposed to say?
What if I look like an idiot?
What if they’re talking bad about me?
What if I go bankrupt?
Our brains and bodies often respond to “what if” questions as “what is” questions. These “what if” questions can start a cascade of physiological reactions that prepare for “fight or flight.” Thus, these potential (often improbable) psychological dangers are reacted to as if they are real physical dangers that are occurring right now. Adrenaline and cortisol are released. Our immune systems are suppressed. We are primed for action…ready to fight a sabre-toothed tiger…when we have only imagined a psychological threat to our well-being by posing our “what if” questions!
If you play “what if” games a lot with yourself, you need to ask this question: Do I usually win? Most people do not. Asking “what if” questions typically just causes a lot of anxiety and keeps us living “in our heads” instead of enjoying the moment.
If you are going to ask “what if” questions, try asking in a different way. Instead of asking how a future event could turn out very negatively, instead ask how a current or past situation could have turned out more negatively but didn’t. In essence, you are trying to find a “silver lining” in a negative situation or be grateful that situation didn’t turn out worse than it did.
- I know I got into a fender bender. What if I had hurt someone? At least that didn’t happen!
- I got a C+ on that exam. What if I had failed it? Then it would have been really hard to get at least a B in the class. At least I still have a shot at that!
- I know that this job with the state isn’t the most exciting one in the world. What if I were totally unemployed? That would be really stressful!
So, if you are going to pose “what if” questions, try posing them in such a way that doesn’t cause you anxiety. Things can be worse than they are right now. It is important to remember that we can be grateful for what have because we can almost always have less.
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