Getting Control Over the Thoughts of “What If”

Photo by Dave Puente

I find it funny that I always need a couple of months of coming out of anxiety to feel comfortable talking about it. I think whenever the anxiety gets really heavy, even though I have the coping skills and logically I know I’ll come out the other end in one piece, it somehow feels like talking about it will jinx it.

Earlier this year I had a really good few months of solid, comfortable and confident existence. And then came late this summer when a few too many triggers sent my mind spiraling again. It was work, it was my personal life and it was a global pandemic that made everything just a little more difficult.

It started as feeling a little stressed out, then it got gradually worse until I was swimming with anxious thoughts and feelings nearly every minute of the day. It felt like no matter what I did I couldn’t stop focusing on things that were out of my control. It was that familiar voice in my head.

What if you’d done something differently?
What if you hadn’t gotten so emotional?
What if life never goes back to normal?

My therapist brought up trying an exercise that ended up being incredibly eye-opening. She talked about getting a box of tic tacs and every time I started a thought with ‘what if’ I would take one out. Since popping tic tacs through a four-and-a-half-hour morning show wouldn’t be the easiest, I decided to pull out a sheet of paper and a pen.

Every time “what if” came across my mind, I’d draw a tally.

I was amazed after the first half hour of the show when I looked down and saw 12 tally marks. By the time the show wrapped up I counted more than 65. More than 65 times that morning my mind had gone to “what if” – which is pretty remarkable considering the fact that I’m talking about the weather every few minutes, building graphics, updating the website and social media. It really showed how pervasive my anxiety was, that even when I felt like I was focusing on a task those thoughts still found a way to creep in.

Seeing the dozens of tally marks I was pretty shocked and disheartened, but then I started to realize why my therapist was having me try this exercise. Each time I stopped to make a tally it interrupted the spiraling thoughts that would usually come with the “what ifs.” Instead of indulging in a terrible scenario I’d create in my head, I stopped myself. By taking a second to mark down the ‘what if,’ it stopped my brain from continuing that cycle.

But it was also making me aware of the statements in the first place. Despite having thoughts about things I couldn’t control every few minutes I didn’t even realize it was happening.

Whether it was tallies or tic tacs didn’t matter, the exercise was making me aware of the unproductive thoughts in the first place.

I used to convince myself that my “what ifs” were a good thing and I was planning and preparing for the worst case scenario. I believed that I was going over something I said was productive because I was replaying what I did wrong so I wouldn’t do it again. But here’s the thing – I wasn’t.

In those moments I wasn’t trying to be a better person or plan for the future – I was beating myself up and stressing myself out. It wasn’t productive; it was only making my anxiety worse.

I made tally marks for a few weeks when the anxiety was especially overwhelming, sometimes making marks in my phone if I didn’t have my notebook. If I was driving and couldn’t do that, I’d just start counting out loud when the thoughts came. It wasn’t just the tallies, I focused on getting more sleep, getting outside and hiking, excercising more, eating right. After a month or so the anxiety started to settle and I started to feel like myself again.

Each time I learn a new coping skill, it’s another tool in my box to help manage my anxiety. I’m grateful for another way to help battle those ‘What Ifs,’ especially knowing that making a few tallies is easy, free and still helps in a huge way.

I may not be making tallies right now, but next week I may need to pull out the notebook again and that’s okay. I may need to start carrying my anxiety medication with me everywhere again, I may need to text my therapist to move up an appointment for extra support.

Having anxiety isn’t about making it go away forever or worrying about jinxing the good days, it’s about having the right tools to manage it and knowing that it’ll be okay.

If you’re struggling right now, please know you’re not alone and reaching out for help is a strength not a weakness.

Here’s how I’ve found my favorite therapists and some of my other coping skills. 

Author of Approachable Outdoors Kylie Bearse

Kylie Bearse

When I'm not exploring the trails, I'm a Meteorologist! You can see me weekend mornings on NBC affiliate 9News in Colorado. Have a weather question? Don’t hesitate to ask!

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