It’s important to understand that we have absolutely no control over our what if thoughts. They happen automatically, not within reach of our conscious control.
On the other hand, is there a way where we can stop what if thoughts from troubling us so much? I believe we can. The answer, from my personal experience, lies in adopting a careless/not bothered attitude towards them, mentally accepting the anxiety, reassuring ourselves that we are safe and shifting our attention onto something else.
The fearful thoughts can only be kept going through our fear of them. Why do we fear our thoughts? Because we seem to think that they should be taken seriously. I know it’s easier said than done to not take our thoughts seriously because they can be so disturbing at times. However, what we have to realize is that these thoughts don’t mean anything. They are not a true representation of reality. Just because we can think a thought, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
It’s very common for anxiety sufferers (I used to do this all the time) to panic under a certain thought, maybe a troubling one they’ve had before. The reason we panic is because we take the content of the thought to be a threatening presence when in fact the content of the thought is just that, a thought about a particular thing, not a true representation of reality.
Don’t think too deeply about how this approach works, just practice responding to your what if thoughts with the attitude of “who the hell cares”, fully allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling and focus your attention on whatever it was you were doing before this thought troubled you.
Just one other thing. It’s really (really) helpful if we don’t put too much expectation on our hobbies to make us feel better. Whenever we associate trying to stop anxiety by doing hobbies, we cannot enjoy the moment we are in whilst doing stuff. Rather than immersing ourselves in the things which grab our attention, we are making our current experience unenjoyable. Don;t approach doing activities in a resistance state of mind where we’re fighting to feel better through doing things. Just have fun, put no expectation on the activity and no pressure on yourself. Things will work out better this way, trust me.
The idea behind this not caring attitude is that it’s not designed to end the anxiety completely. It’s just designed to help you respond in a way which defuses the initial fear created by our initial response to the thought.
Usually when a what if thought pops up into our minds, the first thing we do is panic about the content of the thought. We believe that the content of our thinking is real and so this is why we respond with more fear because we perceive the content of our fearful thinking to be a danger. As an example, “what if I feel anxious when I’m waiting in line at the supermarket?” A non-anxious response to this thought could be “so what if I feel anxious when waiting in line! It’s perfectly okay to feel this way, these are just sensations and thoughts, they cannot harm me”.
“No one is going to notice I’m anxious, they’re too busy wrapped up in their own worlds, and before long, if I totally allow these thoughts and sensations to be, they will pass by like clouds in the sky. They always pass if I let them.”
Do you see how training ourselves to respond in a non-fearful way to our anxious thoughts can help us to dis-empower the anxiety? It’s not the thoughts which causes us more anxiety but our fearful response to them. We have no control over our thoughts, but we can always control how we perceive them and how we react. Our fearful response to the anxiety is what gives it more life. By simply training ourselves to respond in a different way, we can starve the anxiety of the food it needs.
This is how defusing anxious what if thoughts can be applied in real life. So a what if thought springs up into the forefront of our minds. “What if I have a panic attack?” We can practice responding with the so what attitude. “And… So what! I’ve had so many panic attacks in the past, they have never hurt me and never will.” This helps us to change direction from one of fear to one of fearlessness.
The most effective thing to do after we defuse the anxious thought/s is to completely, without reservation, accept the way we are thinking and feeling whilst focusing our mind onto something we enjoy doing.
We can experience full acceptance simply by not trying to push our thoughts and sensations away. I always point out that acceptance isn’t something you have to do. It’s more of a case of not doing or not desiring. Therefore, acceptance comes about by not doing anything about our thoughts and sensations. It also comes about when we are not desiring to escape from how we are feeling. The latter one is going to take a while getting used to because it’s natural for us to not want to feel anxious. After all, humans hate feeling uncomfortable and so we do pretty much anything to get ourselves out of it. Just persevere at this and keep reminding yourself to allow and not fight.
The truth is as you probably know by now is that we have no control over our thoughts and sensations, and because we have no control over them, we might as well welcome them and adopt a welcoming attitude towards them. Seeing them as an enemy and as something to be avoided or escaped from will only serve to make the anxiety more intense.
“Don’t look for peace. Don’t look for any other state than the one you are in now; otherwise, you will set up inner conflict and unconscious resistance. Forgive yourself for not being at peace. The moment you completely accept your non-peace, your non-peace becomes transmuted into peace. Anything you accept fully will get you there, will take you into peace. This is the miracle of surrender” – Eckhart Tolle
Imagine there are two roads we can go down. The first one is fear and resistance, the second one is fearlessness and non-resistance. I spent so much of my life going down road one which equates to responding in a fearful and resistive way. Of course, by responding with more fear and resistance, we are giving the anxiety what it needs to stay nourished. I implore you to travel down road two. It will take practice to respond this way but the more you practice, the more automatic it will become. After a while, you will just be going down the fearless and non-resistive route which will, in time, heal your anxiety.
This article was Inspired by the book DARE: The New Way to End Anxiety And Stop Panic Attacks by Barry Mcdonagh.
Until next time