What's the best strategy for coping with anxiety generated by hypothetical scenarios and "what if" questions (What if I hit 'reply all?' What if I made a mistake at work? What if I offended my friend?) Should we reassure ourselves that the scenario didn't or won't happen (we didn't hit reply all, we didn't make a mistake or offend anyone), or should we imagine the worst-case scenario?
You'd think that imagining the worst-case scenario would make us feel worse but counterintuitively, following anxiety-provoking "what if" thoughts to their conclusion can sometimes provide greater relief.
How does this work? The key principle is this: avoidance maintains anxiety. When we reassure ourselves that our stressful or scary thoughts probably won't come true, we're essentially avoiding the possibility--pushing it away and dismissing it. Avoidance is often effective in the short term, but the stressful what ifs return in full force after a few minutes, leaving us thinking "Okay I know I probably didn't hit reply all...but what if I did?" The possibility is still there so the anxiety remains.
When this happens, it can help to consider what would happen in the what ifs came true. Examples:
1) After some hemming and hawing about whether or not to make the trip, I booked an expensive airplane ticket to attend an engagement celebration in another city. As soon as I pressed 'purchase' on the airline website, my mind raced to "What if it's not that weekend after all? What if they change the date?" I tried to reassure myself that the party date was unlikely to change, but the anxiety remained. What worked was asking myself what if it were changed--then
what? Answer: I'd be stuck with an expensive plane ticket I couldn't
use and I'd be out $500.
2) I received an email from a supervisor concerning a decision I'd made about a project we're working on together. Before even reading the message, my mind reacted: "What if she thinks I made a bad decision?" Instead of reassuring myself that my supervisor probably doesn't care that much, I asked myself what if she did
disagree--then what? Answer: My supervisor would be unhappy with one thing that I did.
3) I was running late and arrived only minutes before teaching a class, without time to review my notes as I usually do. My mind leapt to: "What if I'm unprepared and the class doesn't go well?" When it didn't work to reassure myself that not reviewing my notes wouldn't affect my teaching, I switched strategies, asking myself what if the class doesn't go
well--then what? Answer: One of the classes in the eight-week course
would be inferior to the rest and students might be dissatisfied with the one class.
In each of these situations, exploring the worst-case scenario was more effective than reassurance in alleviating my anxiety. Why?
a) Knowing the worst-case scenario puts an end to the what ifs. The answer is clear.
b) Knowing the worst-case scenario allowed me to figure out how to deal with it, and how to not make the same mistake in the future. I determined that if the party date changed, I'd try to sell my ticket online but that next time I'll double-confirm the date before booking. I realized that my supervisor disagreeing with one decision isn't the end of the world, but that next time I'll check with her first. I concluded that sub-par teaching wasn't something I was willing to risk, and that it was worth it to start class a few minutes late in order to review my notes.
Considering the worst-case scenario might not alleviate anxiety in every situation but next time reassurance isn't helping, try it out and see what happens!