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Controlling the What If

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

What if I end up alone?

What if they don’t like me for speaking up?

What if I lose my job by taking one day off?

What if he doesn’t like me?

Do you have thoughts like this often? What if thoughts are a common factor in developing anxiety if you are asking yourself this question then you may be going through a loop of questions only provoking an end goal of stress. But the good news is that there are ways to control it!

Below are some tips for controlling your what-if statements.

1. Get to know your pattern and what triggers you

One of the hardest parts of dealing with an anxious thought alone, let alone a what-if thought pattern is being aware of the cycle. Many people sit through these thoughts without identifying aspects of what is causing them, how often they happen, or the connection between these thoughts and their emotions.

Paying attention to your pattern, when the thoughts come and how can be the very start to working towards a change! For example, if you find that after leaving a stressful work meeting or a social interaction you are in these thoughts, then you know where to start and when to catch yourself!

Breaking the cycle of thought and putting a stop to it begins with awareness!

2. Question yourself! Fact or fiction? Is it realistic?

When these thoughts occur and you are in the center of your thought pattern, it can be helpful to question yourself in those moments. Asking yourself things such as “How realistic is this to happen?”, “What is the worst that happens if she doesn’t like me?” or “Is that fact or fiction?” can break the circle of what-if statements running through your head.

Often in moments when these thoughts begin, we are in a cycle such as the following: Activating event -> Thought -> Emotion -> Negative or impulsive action or behavior. We often get stuck between the thought and emotional aspects of this pattern. A good question to yourself at the right point of this pattern can essentially break the cycle! It may also be a good idea to ask yourself the question out loud as hearing your response compared to thinking it can make a difference!

3. Run your thoughts by a friend or peer who will tell you honest feedback

Sometimes all we need is one person to tell us honestly that are thought is a little extreme. Having someone you trust that will honestly tell you how it is can make all the difference in change. If questioning yourself is leading to a pattern of self-justifying thoughts and behaviors, then asking someone for their feedback on your thoughts might be the way to go. This could be a parent, sibling, close friend, or even a professional such as a therapist.

Asking one of these individuals open-mindedly about your thought pattern can be the ultimate coping skill at the moment!

4. Practice being in the here and now

Most of the time when we are stuck in the cycle of what if’s, we are not in the present moment. We are thinking about past events of future possibilities. Trying to appreciate what is happening around you can make all the difference in dealing with a negative thought pattern. Activities such as meditation, deep breathing, or taking a walk around a peaceful environment of your choice might help in practicing this mentality.

5. Acceptance

Acceptance of your thought patterns is a very essential part of dealing with avoiding a long-term stressful outcome. Often, a thought pattern is a mind's effort in trying to control things that are out of our hands. Reminding yourself that we cannot always be in control of everything that has and will happen in life is a very important step. Working to accept what is out of your control can go a long way.

6. Avoid the feedback loop!

Once you have developed a good way to deal with your thought pattern and gained acceptance and awareness you may still have moments where these thoughts return for whatever reason. It is important to keep in mind that this can be normal, but you can make it worse for yourself by putting yourself down for returning to a pattern of thought. This return to this pattern of thought has been referred to as the feedback loop from hell.

This pattern of thought leads you to worry about doing the right thing all the time to the extent that when the pattern does occur you might continuously put yourself down as this diagram describes. This can in many cases be self-defeating like behavior leading you back to a negative pattern of thought. If you go through this feedback loop, trying to turn this into a positive where you highlight the good things that have happened may be of benefit. Returning to other tips mentioned prior such as acceptance may benefit you if this is a struggle for you as well!

Written by

Alex Bauman, MSW, CADC



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