“What If Something Bad Happens?”
In today’s society there seems to be a never-ending supply of things to worry about. Therefore, it is no surprise that, regardless of age, the most common concern clients come to me with is worrying. Many of these worries take the form of ‘what if’. What if I don’t get the promotion? What if my child doesn’t make friends at school? What if I fail the test? What if my boyfriend doesn’t love me anymore? What if I get sick? Ultimately, all these ‘what if’ questions are asking the same thing: what if something bad happens? It is likely that you have experienced your own ‘what ifs’ in your lifetime as worrying is a normal part of the human experience. Our initial ‘what if’ thoughts are not problematic, it is how we respond to these thoughts that can start interfering with our daily functioning and make it difficult to live in the present moment.
In simple terms, worrying consists of repeatedly talking to ourselves about the future and what might happen, which is usually focused on the negative or worst-case scenario. When we feel that things in our life are out of our control, we feel uncomfortable and want to change this. Worrying gives us a false sense of hope by telling us, “if you worry about this, you can prepare for it and control what happens”. In other words, worrying is an attempt to mentally solve problems that haven’t happened. However, worrying does not solve our problems because we cannot control the future. Instead, it keeps us trapped in a cycle of negative thoughts rather than enjoying what is happening in the here and now.
One of the first things clients typically tell me about their worry is that they can’t control it, which is usually the reason they decided to seek support. I often validate this because I know that it can feel like worrying is out of our control because it typically happens automatically without even realizing it. However, just because we don’t recognize something is happening, doesn’t mean we can’t control it. Below are three steps to help you start managing your worry and gaining control over the negative thoughts that result from your initial ‘what if’ thoughts.
- List the advantages and disadvantages of worrying. Take time to examine your worries by listing the advantages and disadvantages of worrying. It is common for people to say that they don’t like worrying so there are no advantages. However, people often worry because in some way they find it beneficial and helpful. Ask yourself: what are the advantages of repeatedly thinking about negative things? Writing the advantages and disadvantages on a piece of paper can be beneficial for this exercise. It can act as a reminder when you catch yourself worrying in the future.
- What is in my control vs. what is out of my control? This is another exercise that helps you further explore your worries. Write down your worries and decide which ones are out of your control and which ones are in your control. If you find yourself worrying about something that is out of your control you can remind yourself that worrying is not going to help. Some clients find it beneficial to put these worries in a “mental locker” which signifies to them that they no longer need to worry about it. If you find that your worries are in your control, you can start to problem solve. Take time to look at what the problem is and brainstorm possible solutions and their consequences. If a worry is in our control, there is usually something we can do to reduce our distress.
- Practice mindfulness. Worrying is all about the future, which takes us out of living in and enjoying the present moment. Therefore, one way to reduce our worry is by practicing mindfulness. This is a technique that helps us focus on the here and now which makes it difficult to worry about the future. The next time you catch yourself worrying about something, take three deep breaths and start recognizing your surroundings. What are 5 things you see? What are 4 things you hear? What are 3 things you feel? What are 2 things you smell? What is one thing you taste? By focusing on your five senses in the present moment, you are grounding yourself in reality rather than the negative events that may or may not happen in the future.
Worrying becomes problematic when it is very frequent and difficult to disengage from which can lead to feeling like you are trapped in your negative thoughts. Many people quietly suffer with worry because they don’t think there is anything they can do to stop it. The good news is that worry is something that we can learn to control and manage. If you are suffering from worry and want to learn more about how you can take control over your negative thoughts, please reach out to me for more information on how I can provide you with support in this area.