Anxious Thoughts – From What-If To If-Then:
With anxiety, you can find yourself imagining all sorts of worst case scenarios that might happen. You can worry about all the ‘what if’ possibilities and they can seem to take over your thinking, especially in the quieter moments. Even though you know logically that many of the things you are anxious about are unlikely to happen or are even irrational, you still find yourself worrying and worrying.
And the more anxious you feel, the more you experience those anxious thoughts, which in turn leads to more anxious feelings and even more unwanted thoughts. It becomes a cycle and a pattern that may be linked to something specific yet could just as easily be more general and pervasive. Essentially your mind responds to all those perceived threats of things going wrong or badly in some way and starts to prepare you for taking action. You feel uncomfortable, you get a funny feeling in your stomach, you get tense and restless and your mind keeps overthinking it.
There are many steps you can start to take that will begin to interrupt that pattern of anxiety and start to reduce and diminish it.
One thing that you can certainly start to do is begin to deliberately move away from that ‘what if this bad or negative thing happens’ type of thinking. First of all, it’s totally open-ended and your mind will start to consider what would happen if that thing you are anxious about actually does happen (forgetting to consider whether it is probable or likely in any way)? And so your thinking goes from it actually happening (inside your imagination) to the even more negative consequences. And that just adds more worry to your anxiety.
It can go something like this inside your anxious mind: If I mess up or say the wrong thing socially then people won’t like me and I’ll have no friends and so will end up sad and alone. If I mess up at work then my boss will think I’m rubbish, I’ll probably lose my job, won’t be able to pay my bills and I’ll end up homeless.
Whatever the exact circumstances, people or situation, your anxious thought runs with it and treats it as if it is certain to happen. You go down that tunnel of anxiety without a chance to consider whether your original ‘what if’ thought was accurate or reasonable. Give your anxious brain an option of one possible thing that might happen (the worst case) and it will go with it and move further and deeper into those negative outcomes.
So first of all you can start to dilute that initial anxious thought by thinking of other things that could happen. You already have the worst case, and in order for it to be the worst case then there has to be a best case of some kind, so consider what that might be. And between these two extremes of worst and best, there will be many, many other possible things that could happen. Some may be slightly bad but not terrible, some may be slightly good but not brilliant, and many may be fairly neutral or neither good nor bad.
And because you are thinking about a future thing, all of these potential things that could happen are as likely, or unlikely, as each other. Yet rather than think of only one thing that could happen (the worst case) and letting your mind run with it and build the anxiety, now you have many possible options and outcomes and your mind can’t fix on any one of them; there are too many choices and options.
Of course, you could also remind yourself of times when you’ve thought that the worst would happen and felt anxious, only for things to turn out ok. You can give yourself counter examples when your thinking in the past has been incorrect, or wrong, to again weaken that anxious path of thinking.
I’ve talked about some of these ideas in these articles:
Anxious Thoughts: If-Then Thinking
As well as coming up with more potential things that could happen, and counter examples where you have them, to weaken those anxious thoughts there is another shift you can make in how you are thinking.
Commonly with anxious thinking, you will find yourself thinking about ‘what if’ this thing of that thing happens. As mentioned above it’s very open ended and gives a lot of scope for your imagination to build upon it in unhelpful, anxious ways. It’s also very passive, in the sense that it suggests that the thing you are anxious about will certainly happen and you can do nothing except try and tolerate it, experience it and suffer through it. It’s like you are being drawn forward into this disaster and worst case until you crash into it.
Yet this ignores the fact that in many (although not necessarily all) cases there are things you may be able to do to avoid it, or at least mitigate it. For example, let’s say you are anxious about a presentation you have been asked to do. You find yourself imagining all sorts of ways you can mess up or be judged negatively. What if you forget your words? What if you panic? What if you make a fool of yourself? And so on and on.
Yet this ignores that fact that you can do things about it. You can make sure your preparation is spot on, you can mentally rehearse it, you can ask someone for some coaching and so on. If you feel anxious on the day then you can do some breathing exercises, you can interrupt negative thoughts, you can do a whole load of things that will help you feel calmer and more confident.
Rather than thinking ‘what if this negative things happens?’ you can move to more ‘if-then’ thinking. If this thing happens, or could happen, then you will do something about it. If you feel anxious you can breathe, reassure yourself and do a whole host of other things both beforehand and on the day. At the very least you could think about afterwards and use it as an opportunity to improve (for example, if this presentation doesn’t go as I’d like then I need to ask my manager for public speaking training or I need to work on my confidence and so on).
By focusing on what you can do about it, you get to be active and to learn to handle it better or to just get better at doing that thing. You remind yourself that you have choices and options and resources you can utilise.
It’s worth remembering that we are often quite poor at estimating our own resilience and ability to handle challenges and set backs that may occur. We tend to inaccurately predict how we will respond to emotional life events and tend to overestimate the impact that future events will have on our emotions. You will tend to persistently and erroneously predict that the emotional impact of an event will be greater than is actually the case. That is, you are more resilient than you think you are (there’s more on this over in this article: Are You More Resilient Than You Think? Dealing With Challenges Post Covid-19).
Part of this is the tendency to focus only on the emotional event in question when making a forecast and ignoring other life events that could raise or lower your distress in the wake of the event. As I’m suggesting here, you want to take into account things you can do and actions that you can take that may avoid the worst case or that could reduce its impact and mitigate the anxiety. If that thing happens (or is going to happen) then there are many things you can do about your own thoughts, feelings, actions and reactions that will enable you to go through it, or get through it, more comfortably.
To your health and happiness,
Anxiety Hypnotherapy in Ely & Newmarket
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