Anxiety and "What If" Thinking

Do you ever find yourself thinking in endless cycles about possible scenarios?  Do you find it distressing?  Or maybe you aren’t even aware of it in the moment, and then suddenly realize 15 minutes (or more) have gone by and you’ve been stuck in these circling thoughts.  The irony of  the “what if” is that it almost always is worst case scenario planning.  “What if” thinking may be future or past oriented – we may worry about something that may or may not happen in the future or be dwelling over a past interaction with someone and replaying the scene in our heads. 

In a former career, I was in sales.  Often, this type of thinking seemed beneficial, when I was preparing for customer objections.  But I realized that skill wasn’t actually helpful in my life, when just relating to others and trying to create intimate connections.  “What ifs” took me out of the present and created an unintentional barrier to relating in the moment.  When anxiety and fears get activated in interpersonal relationships, they can keep us from feeling comfortable in our own skin, from speaking our truth, and sometimes even from being able to discern our own truths. 

It’s easy to say to yourself: “well, just stop thinking those thoughts.”  That may work for some people, and may work for a while, but “what if” thinking often requires more than saying “stop it.”  Anxiety and fear responses in our bodies are normal and can serve useful purposes in our life:  they can alert us to danger.  Have you ever been driving and had a near miss?  You probably noticed your heart racing and a change in your breathing.  That is a normal reaction to the averted danger.  You come out that reaction, as you realize you didn’t get hurt and your breathing and heart return to normal rhythms.  You may notice that you change your driving behaviors (slower, more aware for a while after the event).  In essence, you become more attuned to the present as a part of the reaction to the danger. 

But when anxiety gets in the way of us being authentic with ourselves and others, it may be time to look deeper inside to discover how earlier situations may cause us to feel anxious now.  Fears of being abandoned, being unlovable, or not being worthy can stem from vents and relationships in our past.  There are many ways to work with anxiety and reduce unsupportive anxiety. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is well known for working with anxiety. Practicing becoming more attuned to the present moment is a great way to stay out of future worry as well as ruminating on the past.  In the long-term, looking at the source of your anxiety can help determine where you need to build strength so that you can bring the fullness of your vitality, without unnecessary worry, to your interactions with yourself and with others.