“What if…” Two words that are so often followed by some kind of disastrous potential scenario. I should know, I’ve asked myself those sorts of questions far more times than I care to remember. From the more mundane,
“What if we miss the plane?”
“What if that temperature is meningitis?”
“What if my bad back is a slipped disc and I have to have an operation?” Closely followed by “… and I for some reason I die and my kids have no mum? I can’t bear the thought of how upset they’ll be.”
To someone that’s never suffered from Anxiety (as opposed to more ‘normal’ anxiety) it must sound totally crazy. It sounds crazy to me, now. But that kind of ‘snowball’ thinking (where your thoughts literally spiral out of control until you’re imagining the worst possible scenario) has been normal for me for too many years. It would leave me an anxious mess – until of course none of those scenarios I’d imagined ever happened.
You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve never missed a flight, my kids’ temperatures have never been meningitis, and I didn’t need an operation on my back. Oh and I’m not dead. But would really happen if I missed a flight? Am I really likely to die from a back operation (if I even needed one) and if I did, yes, that would be pretty traumatic for all of my family, but would they be ok? Yes, of course they would, in time. Because stuff happens all the time to people all around the world. That’s called life. But it’s taken me a really long time, and a lot of work recently, to get to a place where I get that. And it’s still a work in progress that takes conscious effort from me – but I can now see when it’s happening and have ways to shift my perspective.
A huge part of the shift has come from one simple change – learning (from some of the amazing people I’ve been working with) to ask a better question. And learning to ask myself “does that thought serve me? Does that help me in any way?” If the answer’s no then can I find a different thought?
As in the quote in the picture (one that I’ve always loved and was reminded of recently), instead of the “what if” being bad, we can choose to look at the amazing “what ifs”. Just as “what if I fall?” can become “what if I fly?”, so “What if I fail?” can become “What if it’s amazing and the best thing I’ve ever done?”
But even positive “what if” questions can be a bit dangerous as they can so easily be met with the opposite negative. An even better question to ask is “How can I …?” Or “What can I do…?” because both more naturally lead to more positive answers. So for me, I’ve changed “What if I never get better (from CFS)?” to “How can I give myself the best chance of getting better?”, “What’s the best thing I can do right now?” and “What do I need to do to help my body recover?” Or going back to worrying about making a flight – “What can I do to make sure I’m on time for my flight?” That naturally leads to thinking of solutions rather than focusing on problems and what could go wrong. And of course when you focus on solutions, things are far more likely to go well.
Probably one of the most important questions you can ever ask about a situation you’re worrying about though is “Is that within my control or outside of my control?” With the flight scenario, certain things are within your control, like leaving plenty of time. But certain things aren’t, like traffic problems – yes you can leave some extra time but you can’t control the traffic conditions. If something’s out of your control, worrying about it is totally fruitless. If I do happen to miss the flight, only then do I need to think about that. And I can ask myself “What can I do now? Can I see if I can get the next flight?”
Believe me, I know that’s all so much easier said than done, but as I’ve started moving towards a more positive way of looking at things, I’ve found I’m naturally worrying less, because the pathways in my brain have become more used to looking at the positive instead of the negative.
Amazingly, just like a path you would walk down, the pathways that your brain uses to send messages to other parts of your brain, become wider and easier to travel down the more you use them. As an overgrown, narrow path gets used more and more, it naturally creates a more well-worn pathway. In exactly the same way, if you practice thinking more positive thoughts, your brain makes those pathways easier and quicker to send messages along. There’s a huge amount of neuro science that backs this up – mine is an incredibly simplistic version but simple’s always good to me!
“A man can be imprisoned in a room with a door that opens inwards, as long as it never occurs to him to pull rather than push.” Ludwig Wittgenstein
It’s all about the way you look at things and what questions you ask yourself. Are you asking “What if I’m trapped in here forever?” Or “What could I do to open the door?”