Worry & “What If” Questions

Anxiety, Worry, & What If Questions If you have anxiety, it’s likely that you wrestle with worry and “what if” questions. Many what if questions are easily recognizable and start with the obvious, “What if…?” Others are more subtle and begin with phrases like “How am I ever going to…?” By definition, what if questions prompt us to solve problems that haven’t actually happened yet. The possibilities are truly endless. These worries may involve fears about current situations or about situations set far in the future. What if questions are often difficult to resist because by answering them, we often feel that we become more mentally “prepared” or “ready” to deal with life’s uncertainties. In fact, many individuals feel stressed out if they ignore their worries. They think that because what ifs involve potentially dangerous situations, it’s irresponsible or reckless to ignore these worries. By answering what ifs, they hope to have a better degree of control if and when these situations actually arise. Many individuals with anxiety disorders like¬†obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) struggle with what if questions and other worries for hours each day. How often does this “mental preparation” actually pay off for people with anxiety? Almost never. That’s because mental reassurance (a type of mental ritual) is capable of providing only transient relief. We may feel prepared for a few seconds, minutes, or hours, but the feeling eventually wears off and then we feel compelled to re-board the what if train. Because life involves infinite possibilities and our current situation is constantly changing, the scope of potential what if questions is limitless. You could literally spend the rest of your life preparing for every possible contingency in the hopes that you would be in a better position to deal with it (if and when it actually happens). However, you can never be fully prepared. ¬†Perfect preparation is only a mirage. Providing specific answers to your anxiety’s what-if questions is like trying to fill a colander with water. You can spend time doing it, but it’s never going to get you anywhere. Moreover, you’ve wasted a lot of water in the process. Similarly, there are consequences to answering what ifs. What are the consequences of answering what if worries? Answering what if questions substitutes thoughts for action. Because only action can create lasting change, answering what ifs is an avoidance behavior. Time spent...
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