Life is filled with “what if” questions This is one of our brains’ survival tactics. By asking, “What if?”, we get a chance to brainstorm all the available outcomes and choose the one that will have the best results. But too often, the what if questions we end up asking ourselves – especially in today’s more stressful world – are about potentially terrible outcomes that not only are unlikely to happen, but that we have no control over if they do.
The result is that a person constantly lives in a state of fear with anxiety and stress in overdrive. This is exhausting and can hold you back from feeling your best, trying new experiences, or going after things you want.
Stopping Catastrophic Thinking
Constantly considering the negative outcomes for what ifs is a cognitive distortion called catastrophizing, or catastrophic thinking. This means that your thoughts are altering reality, causing you to disproportionately worry about unlikely events.
Although this can happen to everyone from time to time, if you start focusing on the what ifs enough, it can become an ingrained habit that you can lose control over. This is a leading cause of anxiety.
Instead, you want to refocus your thoughts and actions on positive outcomes and what you can control using the following ideas:
- Name Your Thinking – The first step is to identify that you are engaging in what if thinking. When it happens, name it to yourself so you can begin to reflect on it.
- Consider Reality – Try to set aside any emotions and anxiety you feel and ask yourself what are the chances that this what if will actually happen. In many cases, the chances are extremely slim.
- Check Your Control – Consider what you can do to prevent a what if from happening. If there is a feasible action that does not significantly interrupt your life or goals, take it. Otherwise the thing you fear is going to happen regardless, so there is no point in wasting mental energy over it.
- Take Care of Yourself – Other problems that are going on in your life like stress, depression, and lack of self care makes us more susceptible to catastrophizing. If you find yourself starting to fixate on what ifs, take some time for self care and to address any other mental health challenges you may be experiencing.
It is often easy to worry about bad outcomes. While it may be a relief when the bad things you imagined do not happen, the time you spent worrying did not help you any. In fact, the worry more likely got in your way and made you unnecessarily unhappy. Bad things are going to happen sometimes, but when you spend your time enjoying the good things, rather than worrying about the bad ones, you will be more resilient in confronting the bad.