Anxiety can be pretty crippling. You can feel absolutely at the mercy of the universe and it’s frankly terrifying.
I’ve been thinking lately of Anxiety as the precursor to a fear response. We’re not afraid yet, the metaphorical lion has yet to pounce. But, Anxiety is that feeling you get, walking down the road at night, checking around corners for said lion.
And you think, “What if a lion jumps out at me and tries to eat me?”
Okay, let’s back this up and make it a bit more universally applicable. Very few of the 7 billion+ of us will ever have to fight off a lion. But we might have to fight off an exam. Or our children getting into some seriously bad stuff. Or our Boss bullying us (or finding out we messed up last Tuesday’s report.)
So what if?
The thing is, asking “what if” is not productive. All it does is send you into a ruinous spiral of doom of your brain predicting all the ways you’re going to die. Sad. Alone. Probably really unhealthy and ugly. And maybe eaten by a Lion. Or the IRS.
Instead, what is more productive is turning that “what if” into an “if/then” statement.
Instead of, “what if I lose my job?” (and spiral into debt and lose my house and my wife leaves me and my friends think I’m a loser and my parents have to take me in and I lose all motivation for life and stop exercising I’m going to get fat and never find a job because now everyone hates me and….) Say, “if I lose my job, then I will want to find a new one.” Then you break it down into how you can accomplish the “then” part of the statement” “I can do this by firing up my resume, setting criteria for a job I would enjoy working at, looking for said jobs, applying, getting ready for interviews… etc…”
In a “what if” question, you’re powerless, utterly at the mercy of whatever comes your way. God only knows what is going to happen next, and since you’re already anxious and afraid, you’re pretty sure only bad things are going to happen to you. (Because that anxiety is supposed to prepare you for bad things. Not good things. Bad things. Death things. Bity chompy painful things.)
If/Then statements put you back into a position of control. You know what you’re capable of, you know where you could potentially go from there. A new study posits that the most basic human fear is that of The Unknown. (awesome video) An if/then statement, or an Action Plan, puts you back into the realm of the Known. Or, at least, the More Known. It takes you from Chaos, into Order.
Humans, as a generalization, prefer their worlds to be orderly. We know what’s coming, what we can do, and where things are, and we generally get what we want there. In Chaos, literally anything could happen. And some of those things are good. But a lot of those things are really not good. Since we cannot possibly know what is coming, humans have this neat trick. We’ve constructed a mechanism that says, once we’ve left our enclosed, orderly space “Hey, a Threat might be coming. Be ready.” And I capitalize Threat for a reason.
Threat is an abstract concept that covers all the things that could possibly do you harm. Some animals evolved to just look out for one or two kinds of predator. (This is a reason why invasive species are such a big problem for native ones. They have no mechanism to watch out for new predators.) But humans said, “Naw. To hell with that. I’ll just be ready for anything.” This is your “what if” monologue.
You’re ready for it. You’re a barrel of potential.
With everywhere to explode.
The if/then statement turns your barrel into a gun barrel and points you where you want to go. It gives that readiness something to actually do.
This transformation of “what if” in to “if/then” is something you can do sitting at home, or in a session with a therapist or a very level-headed friend.
Simply get a piece of paper, and write out all your “what ifs” on one side. Then, on another paper, divide it in half. On one side, write the “if” of your “what if” on the other side of that line, come up with the simplest possible next step. Do this for all of your worries.
Then, you and your level-headed companion can examine the “thens” Some won’t need any elaboration. That simple first step can open a behavioral door to a series of natural actions. Police show up at your door because of a wayward child? Invite them in. That’s your Then. Then you will probably naturally invite them to sit down, maybe have a drink, and simply talk. You can plot another “if/then” based on what your conversation produces.
Some of the Thens, like the job dilemma, will need elaboration and planning. Only once you have this Then established can you begin to think about the elaboration. If more charts are needed, chart away. Just take it one statement at a time.
Cuz you got this.
Even if you can’t control your environmental input, you can control your personal output.
“Up with your beard, Durnin’s son!” he said. “For thus it is spoken; Oft hope is born, when all is forlorn.” But what hope he saw from afar he would not tell. When night came it did but deepen the darkness… But at midnight hope was indeed born anew.”
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings