I was recently in session with a highly anxious client who kept saying “What if…” such and such were to happen? As she came up with increasingly scary imagined scenarios, I could sense her anxiety skyrocketing. That’s when I decided I had to ‘peel her off the ceiling’ and work with her to calm herself down. What spontaneously came out of my mouth was:
Why don’t you try replacing the “What ifs” with “What is” instead?
I need to give credit to all of the Buddhist-inspired podcasts I listen to every morning, along with my small yet consistent efforts to become more mindful myself for this specific wording. When people are in a heightened state of anxiety, they need simple catch phrases to grasp onto to calm them down.
Why? Because we can’t panic and think clearly at the same time. When we are panicking, our brain goes ‘offline’ and we are in full fight or flight mode.
When I’m in session with someone who goes ‘offline’ with their anxiety, I can see it in their face immediately and quickly offer them easy, short catch-phrases they can use in that moment to turn off their ‘fight or flight’ response and come back into their ‘rest and digest’ state.
For another helpful way of calming the nervous system, check out these methods I wrote about recently in this article:
It is only when we can change our self-talk from insecure thoughts to secure thoughts that our nervous system registers that there is no danger and that we can relax. That’s when our brain comes back online and we can reason with ourselves and find constructive solutions to our problems.
I explained to my client that when we produce thoughts of “what if”, we are living in the future and are not here in this present moment. Anxiety is usually the result of dwelling on bad things that happened in the past or which could happen in the future. Both the past and the future are completely out of our control and therefore a waste of time and energy to focus on. I joke with clients that the only time we can “what if” is if it about something positive like, “What if I meet a wonderful partner and enjoy a great relationship for many years?”
The only thing we do have control over is this present moment and how we choose to react to things which happen to us. When we are fully awake to the present moment, we are in a state of mindfulness. My favourite definition of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn:
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.
My favourite practise which I share constantly with clients is the RAIN meditation which combines awareness with self-compassion. I go into this in great depth in this article:
When I suggested to my client that she try replacing the “What ifs” with “What is” instead, she calmed down considerably. She realized that all of the “What if” scenarios were a form of catastrophizing or ‘awfulizing’ and highly unlikely to ever happen in real life. I pointed out that she has a very vivid imagination and perhaps it would be better channeled into writing scary novels instead.
When she listed all of the things which she identified as “What is”, she was delighted to realize that nothing she was experiencing was unmanageable. We spent the rest of the session brainstorming practical solutions to the problems she was facing and this gave her a concrete action plan to work with.