Written by Emily Reardon.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in the middle of teaching a lesson on creative writing to a class full of eager twelve year olds. I was explaining how to be successful on the assignment when I kept being pulled into tangents by hands shooting in the air followed by questions that all started with the words “what if.” I played along and answered a few of the tangential questions, but then I looked at the clock and realized I didn’t have time to keep stopping for the “what ifs.” I finally explained that all of the what-if scenarios were hypothetical, not real, and that we didn’t need to focus on them. My class seemed to accept this idea very willingly and we moved on.
Upon reflection, I wondered why I could so easily dismiss the “what ifs” of others while I felt so intertwined with my own. It was probably because I could stand in the front of the room and tell my class with confidence that they had nothing to worry about and that as long as they tried their best and followed the rubric they would be just fine, and they believed me. If only I had as much faith in myself as they did in me, I might be able to shut down my own, much scarier “what ifs.”
People who live with anxiety, OCD, and other mental health conditions are no strangers to negative “what ifs.” These are thoughts that creep into the brain seemingly out of the blue, plant themselves there, and refuse to leave. They range from moderately troubling (What if I sent that email to the wrong person?) to disturbing (What if my friends secretly do not like me?) to downright terrifying (What if I accidentally harm a loved one? What if thinking this means I actually want to?). They are unwanted, unproductive, and sometimes intrusive.
The problem is that people who experience negative “what ifs” and intrusive thoughts (thoughts that do not really seem to belong to us or align with our moral code) often know that these thoughts are irrational. There is no question upon checking a text-message recipient for the tenth time that I know I’ve sent it to the right person, but still my brain will insist, but what if you didn’t? So why do we sometimes continue to listen to these “what ifs” even though we know they are not rational? The answer lies in how much power and importance these thoughts are given.
One thing that is known about mental illness in 2016 is that there is usually no “cure” per se, but there is recovery and rewiring of the brain. Negative “what ifs” go with anxiety like peanut butter with jelly, and there is no magical remedy to make them go away. However, there are some things that can be done to gain power over the “what ifs” before they escalate.
First, you can label those thoughts as just that; thoughts. As a human being, you think tens of thousands of thoughts every day, most of which are subconscious and completely irrelevant. If a disturbing “what if” creeps in, remember that it is just a thought and let it be. You may have a tendency to actively try not to think about a disturbing “what if”, but doing so will only make the thought crop up more. (For example, when I say do not think about pancakes, you instantly start thinking about pancakes!) Accept that you are having a frightening thought, and then remember that it is just a thought and has no power over you.
Another thing you can try is practicing mindfulness. For anyone familiar with the world of mental health, mindfulness is a common buzzword and a technique that people use to stay focused on the present. Practicing mindfulness can provide relief from thinking about negative things that could happen in the future and overthinking things that may have happened in the past. Mindfulness means being in the present. To practice mindfulness, think about where you are and what you can observe with your senses. Feel yourself breathing. Accept your thoughts as just thoughts.
Finally, you can seek help. No matter how terrifying, disgusting, or irrational a “what if” or intrusive thought may be, you can bet that someone else has had it before you. Seeking therapy with a professional and being honest about the thoughts that burden you is a wise and healthy action to take.
As someone who has struggled with intrusive thoughts since I was young, I do not deliver any of this lightly. Dismissing these “what ifs” is hard, near impossible sometimes, and they may never truly go away. That being said, with “what ifs,” it is not so important to make them go away as it is to train ourselves to cope with them in healthy, constructive, and understanding ways. “What ifs” only have power if you let them, because as I told my seventh graders so nonchalantly, they are not real.