A Little Trick for ‘What-if’ Thinking

Worrying about something can often monopolize our thoughts, wreak havoc on our emotions, and rob us of our energy. ‘Worst-case-scenario’ worrying will quickly bring us from a place where logic might have had a say to the “worst outcome possible, which will be devastating.” 

Sound familiar? I think that everyone can say that worriers or not, we have all landed there a few times. I was recently with a client who talked about the things in her past that she was proud of having accomplished; one of them was taming down her worst-case-scenario worrying. She stated that what really helped her was a simple trick with language – “Every time I go to automatically think ‘What if….” I change it to ‘What is.'”

Which, when we think about it, totally makes sense. “What if” brings us to a place where our worry gets tied into our imagination and we lean into the infinite possibilities. That gets combined with negative bias (the natural tendency to think the worst – based on our survival brain), and we have the worst outcome possible. But if we change that to “What is” we are now leaning into our rational brain; we shift from our imagination to the facts, or what we know right now. When we utilize our logic, we also open up the space to move away from negative bias, creating a more realistic, objective analysis of the situation.

“What is” instead of “What if” – I like it! 🙂

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Over-Thinking and Anxiety

When we are anxious about something, we tend to worry. Sometimes we ‘worst-case scenario’ our worries, other times we spend time ruminating through something endlessly; we can also have the tendency to over think everything.

Over-thinking and anxiety work hand in had to keep us stalled. Self-doubt and fear combine to put us in a position of not being able to make a decision; it binds us to a state of limbo and opportunities may pass us by. The tendency to over-think may be a learned behaviour, a consequence of low self-confidence or esteem, or simply a bad habit.

Our first step in moving past the tendency to over-think is to recognize it’s hold. From there, we can begin to shift our focus to include:

  • Challenging the fear. Lean into it by simply recognizing the fear. Acknowledge it – we can remind ourselves that curiousity is a way to temper fear’s grip.
  • Write down the alternatives. Sometimes this helps us as it allows some of our rational mind or logic to chime in on the issue.
  • Vet it with a friend. Sometimes we over-think as a way to simply avoid something. Using someone else as a sounding board prompts us into action.
  • Set a timer. Give yourself a set amount of time to overthink – then make the decision.

When we actively work towards tempering our over-thinking, we can begin to feel more confident in our ability to make a decision; thereby feeling less anxious and more prepared to face life’s challenges.

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Have Social Anxiety? Try this tip!

When clients come into therapy with the issue of social anxiety, one of the most common statements I hear is “I am afraid of what people will think of me.” It would seem that somewhere along the line, what was incorporated into their core belief system was a fear of judgement, a fear that somehow they weren’t going to live up to someone else’s expectations. “What happens if I say something stupid?” “I worry that all eyes will be on me.” They fret about what they should wear, how they look, what they should say or not say, that people will talk about them.”

Although it is important to gain an understanding as to how this core belief developed, it is also important to understand the thinking trap that we get into called ‘Mind Reading.’ Mind Reading is when you assume what others are thinking and feeling about you without having any concrete evidence about what they are really thinking. The problem is that we often respond to these assumptions as it they were true.

And in challenging this thinking trap, I ask you to think about why it is that we always assume that what another person is thinking about us is negative? Why aren’t we assuming that they might like our outfit, or laugh at our joke?

Because when we go into a situation already geared up for a negative response, we will distort or misinterpret the information we are receiving. As we are getting ready for the social event, we lean into the negative feelings and thoughts, we feed our fears.

We are much better served to tell ourselves, “I am not going to mind read. I am not going to assume that people are thinking anything of me. I am going to remind myself about the reality of the situation which is that people really aren’t paying that much attention.” (Which really is the truth.)

Accept the social invitation. Smile. Have good manners. Remember to breathe. Pat yourself on the back. Oh, and remember to have fun. 🙂

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A Tip About Panic Attacks

One of the books that I read on vacation was entitled “maid” by Stephanie Land. A memoir, “maid” was  Stephanie’s story about how an unplanned pregnancy, and subsequent life as a single mom, saw her strapped in poverty for years as she struggled to support herself and her daughter.

For anyone who suffers from panic attacks, you know first hand how frightening and debilitating in the moment they can be. You most likely also know that they do tend to pass, and when we ground ourselves, we can help to dissipate the panic. A passage in the book that I earmarked spoke about how Stephanie handled her overwhelming feelings:

“At the stop sign at the end of the street, I pulled over to the curb. I leaned forward, pressing my forehead against the steering wheel. This had happened often in the last year. Whenever I felt the pain of loss – my chest caving in right at the hollow spot in the center – I found it best to stop and wait, to give the feeling a moment to pass. The pain didn’t like to be ignored. It needed to be loved, just as I needed to be loved. As I sat in my car, I breathed in and out, counting to five each time. I love you, I whispered to myself. I’m here for you. Reassurance of self-love was all I had.”

What I like about this passage is process, grounding, and affirmations; a great combination in how we can focus on the panic to help ourselves get through the overwhelming feelings. Being able to acknowledge our fears in the moment, breathe through them while focusing on our courage will help us to keep the love for our self close by.

A lovely story, “maid” is a worthy read.

Photo credit: Me!

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Two Common Thinking Traps of the Anxious Mind

There are times when our internal dialogue works against us. Sometimes this comes in the form of our core beliefs, but other times it can come from our thinking styles. For someone with anxiety, two common thinking traps tend to have the capacity to influence and reinforce their anxious mind:

  • Catastrophising: the tendency to magnify the situation; to blow things out of proportion. This is really the “what if” kind of thinking that can lead someone into a loop of rumination, as they work themselves into worst case scenario thinking. It is the type of thinking style that keeps you very centered on the future, and what you can’t control. Very often, what started out as a legitimate worry, becomes so magnified that it takes over the ability to rationalize it.
  • Jumping to Conclusions: Very often, we imagine we know what others are thinking and begin to guess at what their actions mean; we become so focused on what it “could mean” that we lose sight of using effective communication, and end up in another all consuming thought loop.

The first step to changing a thinking style is simply to recognize it. Understanding that it has developed as a habit can give us permission to create newer, healthier thinking styles that focus more on the present and on what we know. Allowing our logic to play some role in our thinking will take away some of the power that our emotions have in those moments.

With the overall goal of having flexible thought, we can begin to recognize when we are feeling trapped by our thinking and remind ourselves to “Take a deep breath, focus on the facts, ask for clarification or support.”

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Meet Ellen Grickites; an Algonquin student who speaks her truth

I came across the website “Hope Heals;” an initiative being led by the Public Relations class of Algonquin College. In one of their featured stories, a student named Ellen Grickites, speaks about her experience with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a fairly well known therapy and is often accompanied by other types of therapies as a practical approach to challenging some of our core beliefs and automatic thoughts.

There is a natural link between our thoughts, our feelings and our behaviours. Very often, we can be triggered by a feeling or thought that will, in turn, influence our behaviour. Ellen writes about her own experience with CBT: “Most of my early sessions included me explaining how I was feeling: Low, numb, stressed, insecure. My psychiatrist and I then began to question why I was feeling these things: Was it school? Friends? Bullying? The next step was to figure out how I could combat these feelings. I could distract myself, talk to my mom, or write them down. We discussed many options for distraction, and how I could make myself feel better.”

Although the article is about Ellen’s experience with a particular therapy, I am also able to appreciate her willingness to enter therapy and her openness about how tenacious we have to sometimes be with some of our ingrained patterns. I quote: “I am very proud of myself for having practiced cognitive behaviour therapy for the past four years. It’s a big step, and takes a lot of effort, but in the end, your mental health is worth it.”

Well said, Miss Grickites, well said. 🙂

To read the full article: https://www.hopeheals.care/ellens-story

To read an article introducing you to CBT: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/what-is-cbt-definition-meaning/

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What Anxiety and Anger Have in Common

You’re running late, feeling keyed up about not being on time; no one seems to be co-operating and the littlest one is starting to have a meltdown because she can’t find her favourite hat. Before you know it, you are yelling at the kids and yanking the closet door practically off of its hinges.

How did you go from anxious to angry so easily? Simply answered, our bodies set us up for it. When we are anxious, our body’s muscles tense up, our blood pressure rises, our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes more shallow and our attention narrows. The same thing happens when we are angry. Both our anxiety and our anger activate what is called the sympathetic nervous system which gets us ready for action. It becomes very easy when feeling stressed, to simply shift into anger because our bodies are already there.

It is our parasympathetic system that gets us back to a relaxed state. Eventually, whether anxious or angry, built in mechanisms eventually bring us back to calmness (picture driving to work after having dropped off the kids, coffee purchased and music playing). In the midst of feeling stressed, we can help that process along and allow it to get us there sooner by taking some deep breaths.

Focusing on slowing down our breathing pushes the reset button on both our physiological state and our mindset. We are much better served to stop, take some deep breaths and state to ourselves “It’s okay, like every other morning, we’ll get there.” Leaving everyone less rattled and the door still on its hinges 🙂

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Anxiety Fact #6

Anxiety can become a problem. This is when people usually seek therapy as their anxiety has reached a disruptive place in their life. If your body is reacting in alarm when there is in fact no danger, it creates a distressful cycle as we try to manage our worries and fears physiologically. Our body produces symptoms based on our fearful thoughts, but without any real danger, our body then has no signals that “Everything is okay. We got this.”

If anxiety reaches a level that has become disruptive, it really is okay to ask ourselves, “Does it have to be this way?” Reducing stress levels as well as actively reducing worry can help.

“Thinking will not overcome fear but action will.” – W. Clement Stone

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Anxiety Fact #5

Anxiety is mostly anonymous. As much as our anxiety makes us feel exposed and vulnerable, most people (except those closest to you) cannot tell when you are anxious. I can remember how nervous I used to feel when having to present something in front of my peers in graduate school; I would have that sinking feeling in my stomach and it felt as though everyone could see my uneasiness.  It was a physiological reaction and one that felt both out of my control and very obvious. Afterwards, my classmates would complement me on how calm, cool and collected I was. 🙂

“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.” – Armit Ray

Information for this post and a great website: https://www.anxietycanada.com/

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Anxiety Fact #4

Anxiety does not last forever. Even though anxiety can feel very permanent in the moment, it is a temporary process and does decrease. It ebbs and flows, existing as part of our adaptive mind-body system; when we process what we are worried about, we can often move to a position of feeling calmer. In a past post, we learned that emotion tends to trump reason which will often allow our fears to take over; taking a few deep breaths and then asking ourselves “What can I do about this worry right now?” will help us to allow our rational mind to come in and have some influence over our emotion, therefore decreasing the anxiety.

“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” – Corrie Ten Boom

Information for this post and a great website is: https://www.anxietycanada.com/

Photo credit: http://Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash