‘‘What if’’ thoughts are natural, but sometimes it’s hard to turn them off. There are steps you can take to calm your mind and lessen your anxious thoughts.
Wondering “What if?” isn’t always a problem, but sometimes you might follow these thoughts down an anxiety-filled rabbit hole. When this happens, it can be difficult to focus on daily life and tasks. You even might find these thoughts keep you up at night.
If you find yourself worrying about things that might happen, rest assured there are ways to stop poring over what-ifs and start putting your mind at ease.
“What if” thoughts can be about almost anything.
Common “what if” thoughts often center on financial concerns, relationships, health, or the future. Sometimes, these thoughts can be about anxiety itself.
- What if I lose my job?
- What if I can’t pay my bills?
- What if my partner breaks up with me?
- What if my headache means I have cancer?
- What if I end up alone?
- What if I have a panic attack?
- What if I mess up at work or school?
What-if thoughts can sometimes serve a purpose. They could prepare us for dangerous situations or keep us on task. But intrusive thoughts may start to take up too much space in your mind and overstay their utility.
When are they problematic?
If worried-filled thoughts distract you constantly or interfere with productivity and relationships, these ruminations could be a symptom of an anxiety disorder.
Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder can involve intrusive thoughts like the “what ifs” but also include:
- not being able to stop worrying or being nervous
- knowing you worry too much
- having a hard time relaxing or concentrating
- trouble falling asleep
- constantly feeling on edge
Anxiety can also take a toll on your body, and you may notice physical symptoms like:
- having a hard time staying asleep
- being tired all the time
- unexplained pain
- headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches
- sweating a lot for no reason
- needing to go the bathroom often
If you notice you have some of these symptoms, in addition to your worrisome thoughts, you may want to think about talking with a doctor or a therapist. They can help provide resources and strategies to reframe ruminations.
In the meantime, you can try these approaches to keep your worries in check and stop wondering “what if.”
It may be tempting to accept “what if” thoughts as inevitable truths, but they aren’t.
Thoughts are just that — they come and they go, as present moment awareness principles explain. What you do with those thoughts is what gives them power.
You may be able to better manage ruminations if you identify them as they come and allow them to pass.
Once you can call out a “what if” thought, it can help to take a moment to see if you can pinpoint the source of the unwanted thought.
You might ask yourself:
- What’s going on right now that may have caused me to think this?
- How do I feel about what’s going on?
- Am I safe right now? Is there something that makes me feel unsafe?
Over time, you may realize your anxious thoughts are spurred in specific situations, like before a meeting with your boss or doctor’s appointment.
If you know ahead of time your anxiety could be triggered by a particular scenario, you can go into the situation prepared with anxiety reduction strategies.
You could even try:
Therapy can be a powerful tool against worrisome thoughts. It can teach you how to transform your thoughts, behaviors, and reactions so you can maintain mental wellness.
Remember, you’re not alone, no matter how you choose to deal with your “what if” worries.
At one time, as many as 6 million people in the United States reported having intrusive thoughts.
We all have troubling “what if” ruminations from time to time.
Sometimes, anxiety can be difficult to recognize, and it can be hard to break a worry cycle. There are several approaches you can try to manage anxiety and turn the noise of the “what if” thoughts down.