Anxiety, What If Questions, and Worry

Answering “What If…?” questions is an anxiety-related avoidance behavior that involves overpreparation.

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 answering what ifs is time wasted. How would you rather spend your time? Rehashing answers to (likely) irrelevant questions, or doing something that will actually help you recover from your anxiety disorder?
  • What ifs multiply when you engage with them. The more you answer what ifs, the more what ifs will pop up to take their places (think about the paintbrushes in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice).
  • You never learn to trust yourself.  Over-preparation reinforces the idea that you won’t be capable of dealing with stressors when they spontaneously arise.  As such, in the long run, answering what ifs increases feelings of helplessness and dread.

Worry and what if questions do not actually prepare you to deal more effectively with situations; they just temporarily make you feel better.  The only real consequence of exhaustive preparation is that you miss out on experiencing the current moment. Instead, you’re living in (and engaging with) a fantasy.

Time is finite.

The most unfortunate consequence of catering to what-ifs is that you end up spending your life preparing for disasters that may never materialize.  Moreover, the sacrifices you make to “feel prepared” never actually work. You never feel adequately ready…in fact, you likely feel even more out of control.

How to Deal with What If Questions & Worry

The best way to deal with what-if’s is to acknowledge them but resist efforts to mentally solve them.  The reason this is helpful is because it’s based on acceptance of uncertainty.

When you feel an urge to answer a what if, avoid coming up with potential solutions and work on accepting that you’ll cope with the situation when it actually arises.  It’s also helpful to develop a script like the following (note: this script was written to help deal with symptoms of sensorimotor OCD):

“Thank you, OCD, for pointing out that I might have these symptoms forever. It’s certainly possible. I guess I’ll just have to deal with that when it happens. In the meantime, if I have to live with these symptoms, I might as well work on becoming less frightened/annoyed by them.”

That’s it.  If the script feels too abrupt, that’s good.  It’s supposed to be brief so that it doesn’t sideline you from your life.

Write out your script on a coping card and review it when needed.  You could also make an audio recording of your script and load it on your iphone/ipod, smartphone, computer, or car stereo.

If you find yourself asking, “What if I write the wrong script and it doesn’t work?” reread the above section “How to Deal with What If Questions & Worry.”

Questions? Comments? Struggling with anxiety related to what ifs and life’s other worries? Sound off below.