What-If Thinking and Anxiety

A while back, I ended up at an IHOP with my kids for our Second Breakfast. It was pouring rain, and the restaurant’s parking lot was full. After circling a couple of times, I ventured over to the lot next door, a tiny strip mall with plenty of open spots, as none of those stores were open that early. We made a mad dash for the restaurant door.

Once inside, I asked up front if the neighboring lot followed through on their We-Will-Tow warning signs. The hostess and a patron both said I should move my car. But the rain was torrential, my kids were hungry, and there was nowhere else to park, so I gambled.

As we were seated, I found my mind engaged in a familiar narrative. Would they tow my car? What if they did? Where would they take it? How would we make it to the tow yard without any car seats? As a result, I felt anxious and driven to get through breakfast as fast as we could.

What-if thinking is characteristic of anxiety. In fact, when you find yourself what-if-ing, you can be pretty sure you’re engaged in anxiety-based thinking. Those who struggle with significant anxiety can get immersed in a process of “future-tripping,” where conscious awareness becomes focused on an uncertain future as if it’s real. What if my car is towed? What if I’m stranded at an IHOP on a rainy day with two, car-seat-less kids? What if? What if? What if? But here’s the thing: what-if’s are only thoughts, and most of these thoughts don’t become realities.

About halfway through our meal, I realized that all the worrying in the world wasn’t going to make any difference. If the tow truck was going to come, it was going to come, and worrying about it wouldn’t prepare me for what came next. If it wasn’t going to come, then I would have wasted a chance to enjoy a meal and engage with my children in the present moment. I surrendered to whatever might happen. As it turns out, my car was there when we came out.

How often do we suffer from what-if thinking, worrying about interactions and events that never happen? If we can catch ourselves engaged in this process, then we can stop and redirect our thinking, realizing that anxiety won’t impact the outcomes we fear and won’t help us problem-solve difficult situations. It’s just the mind’s way of running in place.

If what-if thinking dominates your internal narrative, anxiety treatment might be useful toward identifying and moving away from these unhelpful thinking patterns. Contact Gatewell to learn more about how we work with anxiety symptoms and disorders.

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