We have all gotten caught in the “what if” trap at times. What if I don’t get that job? What if my relationship doesn’t work out? What if I’m never successful? Humans often observe an elevated frequency of “what if” thoughts when experiencing a high amount of worry about a future event. Typically, these anxious thoughts stem from difficulty experiencing and accepting uncertainty. Uncertainty is an uncomfortable concept, as we all want to know for sure what will transpire in the next minute, the rest of the day, or the rest of our life. In basic terms, we can describe this as fear of the unknown. Whether we like it or not- daily life is in itself uncertain! When we refuse to accept this reality, it develops and maintains excessive worry, making those “what if” thoughts more prominent and bothersome.
We often hold on tight to positive beliefs about our worry, thinking it makes us prudent and responsible. Frequently, people report that engaging in “what if” thoughts somehow helps to prepare for future danger or the next problem that is ahead in life. However, this type of thinking is unnecessary. It is certain that there will be problems and challenges in our future. Therefore there is no need to engage with constant “what if” thoughts, as resiliency, effective problem solving, and tolerance of emotions will help us cope with future challenges ahead.
When experiencing a “what if” thought, first observe this and then try to re-direct back to the present moment with the use of mindfulness. This will help direct your focus back to things of value in your life and help you to engage fully in the present moment. Additionally, living fully in the present makes us much better prepared to handle that next difficult problem that will inevitably come down the line. Remember, it’s a choice to engage with that “what if” thought and fall into the “what if” trap. Alternatively, we can also choose to engage fully in our present life instead and deal effectively with the next challenge ahead when it occurs.