Beating the “What-If” Blues
By Deanne Repich
Do you find that a lot of your negative thoughts begin with the words “What-if?” Does one anxious thought lead to another and another – only to become a negative spiral of worry? When this happens, you’re probably using what-if thinking.
WHAT IS “WHAT-IF” THINKING?
What-if thinking occurs when you make negative predictions about the future, usually starting with the words “What if?” Most of us can relate to Juan’s story of what-if thinking. Juan is running a few minutes late to work. The first thought that pops into his head is: “What if I’m late for my nine o’ clock meeting?”
But his thoughts don’t stop there.
His negative thoughts start snowballing. “What if I walk in late and everyone looks at me? What if I get nervous, start sweating, and feel embarrassed? What if my boss notices I can’t handle it and I lose my job? What if I can’t afford to feed my family?”
His body responds with a host of symptoms – his heart races, it’s tough to breathe, and there’s a knot in his stomach the size of Texas.
As you can see, when you use what-if thinking, one negative prediction usually leads to another, and another, and another. This negative chain has a snowball effect that leads to intense feelings of anxiety, loss of control, and physical symptoms.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Studies show that you have the power to change your thoughts. When you change your thoughts, you create biochemical changes in your brain that affect how your body and mind feel and react. In other words, change your thoughts and you change your reality!
How do you change your what-if thoughts? You do this by using the three “R”s – Recognize, Replace, and Reinforce.
1) RECOGNIZE. Keep a small notepad with you. Each time you notice yourself thinking a what-if thought, write it down. Writing things down helps you to slow down and expose habitual negative thoughts to the light of day. If you don’t take the time to write down your what-if thoughts, it’s easy to miss them because you are so used to them.
The Onion Technique.
The following technique can help you peel off layer after layer of negative thoughts and reach the core negative belief. I call it the Onion Technique because it’s like peeling off layer after layer of an onion until you reach the core. Here’s how it works. When you are in a fairly relaxed mood, take out your notepad and open it up to the first what-if thought. Read the thought and then ask yourself: “And what if that did happen? Then what would happen?” Write down your answer. Repeat this process of digging deeper several times, each time asking “And what if that did happen? Then what would happen?” and writing down your answer.
After several layers you will reach your core belief – the belief that is at the root of your fears. In Juan’s case he might reach this core belief: “If I can’t feed my family, my wife and kids will be disappointed in me. They’ll leave me and I’ll be all alone.” His real fear – what is driving his what-if thoughts – is his fear of being rejected, unloved, and all alone if he disappoints the people he loves. That’s the belief that Juan needs to replace in order to beat the what-if blues. His worry about arriving a few minutes late to the meeting will fade once he addresses this core issue.
2) REPLACE. Once you’ve pinpointed the core negative belief, decide what your new belief will be. Adjust the old belief so that it promotes your well being and reflects the reality you want to create. When creating your new belief, make sure to:
— use the present tense
— use “I statements”
— focus on what you want (not what you don’t want)
In Juan’s case, here are several new beliefs he may want to use to replace the unhealthy belief:
— “I am worthy of love, even when I disappoint others.”
— “I am loved for who I am, not how much I earn. I love my family and we will get through life’s challenges together.”
— “Since I am human, I will disappoint the people I love occasionally. I can be imperfect and still receive love.”
When you notice yourself using a what-if thought, stop it in its tracks. It may help to visualize the word “No” or “Stop” in big red letters in your mind. This action interrupts the thought. Then immediately change your focus by replacing the what-if thought with the new, healthier thought you created.
3) REINFORCE. Once you have chosen your new belief, reinforce it several times a day. Say the new belief with feeling. Believe that it is true, even if only for a moment. Think it. Say it aloud. Write it down. You can even record yourself saying the belief for several minutes and then play it back every night just as you’re drifting off to sleep. Just like any other habit, the more you practice, the sooner it will become second nature to you.
Making the new belief a part of your life takes time and consistent practice, but the results are worth it. You chase away the what-if blues and the physical symptoms that go along with it. And even better, you change the way you look at life!
Deanne Repich, founder and director of the National Institute of Anxiety and Stress, Inc., is an internationally known anxiety educator, teacher, author, and former sufferer. Tens of thousands of anxiety sufferers have sought her expertise to help them reclaim their lives from anxiety, stress, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, anxiety attacks and social anxiety. She is the creator of the Conquer Anxiety Success Program, author of more than fifty articles, and publishes the Anxiety-Free Living printed Newsletter for anxiety sufferers. She has an a free e-book Anxiety Tips: Seven Keys to Overcoming Anxiety you can download immediately when you visit her website www.ConquerAnxiety.com.
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