Are You Paralyzed By “What If”?

Three steps if you’re frozen by thoughts of the worst-case scenario

I recently read a story about two neighbors, Will and Oliver.

Will is at home at night, alone. He hears a rustling noise outside, and some loud banging. Will is uncertain if the noises are animals that got into his trash, or a serial killer outside his window.

Will thinks to himself, there are very few break-ins in my neighborhood. No one has ever been murdered on my block. And the last time I heard a noise like that during the day, a squirrel jumped out of the trash can at me. Scary, but not life threatening.

The noise continues. Will listens more closely. He also notices that his alarm system is still armed and silent. So his doors and windows are likely still closed.

Still, Will would rather know what’s going on. So he peeks out the back door. And sees the garbage cans knocked over and trash everywhere.

In the end, he doesn’t know exactly what happened, but all the signs point toward animals and not a serial killer. So he calms his racing heart and goes upstairs to get ready for bed.

Next door lives Oliver.

Oliver tends to worry.

Oliver also hears a rustling noise and some loud banging outside his back door.

Oliver immediately conjures up the worst-case scenario. He pictures a man in a ski mask and a large ax entering his home.

His worries quickly escalate. Every time he hears another noise, the stories in his head become more elaborate and specific. He can’t stop thinking about what will happen to him once the man with the ax gets in.

He is suddenly hyperaware of every sound, every floorboard creak in his house.

Because he is so fixated on this elaborate worst-case scenario. It doesn’t even occur to him that his alarm system is still on and silent. He becomes overwhelmed with fear and runs upstairs into his bedroom and locks the door.

Unlike Will. Who looked around outside and got more information about the likelihood of a threat. Oliver continues to be uncertain about the actual source of the noise. His heart pounds as he sits in the corner of his room, terrified. Frozen.

For most of my life, I was decidedly an Oliver. If I thought about something new and uncertain, I assumed the worst. And then ran away and hid, fixated on a terrible outcome I had cooked up in my head.

But I’ve worked hard to learn some of the tricks that Will used. Because those of us who are more like Oliver can learn a few things from people like Will. And find a way through the pounding heart and terror that comes with uncertainty.

Take one tiny step away from that worst-case scenario

For those of us with the right neurochemistry, it’s easy to go straight to a worst-case scenario . A man with an ax outside our door. And then our brain stays there. And thinks about this possibility over and over again. Creating so much certainty around it that we can’t even imagine anything else happening.

So if you find yourself there. Assuming there will be a man with an ax. Or that everyone will laugh at you if you try that new class at the gym.

One way to start to move away from that thought? Find another scenario that is an inch away from where you are now.

“It is possible that the sound outside my window was not a man with an ax.”

This is what a teacher of mine calls a thought ladder. You aren’t going all the way to a bright and shiny thought. To go from worst- case to thinking that everything is rainbows and unicorns is too big a step. Instead, you start by taking one, tiny step away from where you are now. One rung on the ladder.

It’s possible that one person might not laugh at me at the gym.

In the story, Will does consider that there could be a serial killer. But he also thinks… its possible that an animal got into my trash. He hasn’t decided which scenario is more likely yet. But he is open to the idea that there are other possibilities.

See if you can find evidence for your worst-case scenario

So you’ve picked a horrible potential outcome. The worst thing you can think of. But what is the basis for it?

Oliver’s mind conjured up a man in a ski mask with an ax. And that’s what he fixated on.

Will, on the other hand, thought through the evidence. Was there support for the idea that a serial killer was at his back door? He asked himself: Have there been significant crimes in this area before? If a murderer was out there, how would he get in without setting off my alarm system?

Will tried to find evidence to support his worst-case scenario. And he couldn’t find much.

So if you are convinced that everyone will laugh at you in that new class at the gym. Think to yourself, have you ever seen an entire class of people laughing at someone else? Have people laughed at you? If they have, how many times? How many people? The reality, if it exists at all, is probably a lot smaller than the thought in your head.

If you think through the reality of previous experiences and rational outcomes. It can start to move your mind away from the worst-case. And find another way to consider other possibilities.

Accept that there will always be some uncertainty

Again, for those of us wired like Oliver, it can be very difficult to tolerate uncertainty. And intolerance of uncertainty is so common that there is a scale used by clinical psychologists to measure and study it. But the reality is, none of us can predict the future. Most of the time, our worst-case scenario has not happened yet, and has never happened in the past. But we don’t know for sure what exactly will happen. And that gap is where we freeze up.

But as Robert Leahy, PhD, notes in The Worry Cure:

You may think that achieving certainty — and achieving it now — will make you feel less anxious, but searching for certainty actually makes you more worried….because anything is possible. ..looking for certainty will guarantee only one thing — more worry.

So back to the story again. Will accepts that he does not know exactly what happened to make the sounds outside his back door. But he looked at all the evidence available. He realized that the most likely outcome is not a serial killer. And he accepted that. He calmed himself down and moved on to his next task.

Oliver did not seek out any evidence for or against his thought. He froze, awaiting resolution of the uncertainty. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t do anything else. But if he could have found a way to make room in his mind for other possibilities. To seek out evidence to support the most likely scenarios. And then to accept that he had no control over the timing and reality of the outcome. He could have moved on with his evening.

I don’t want to make you think that any of these steps are easy. If you get frozen by your “what if’s”, breaking out of that pattern, that habit, is hard. It takes work. But if you are mindful. If you try. Step by step. Over time, you will move forward into best case scenarios that your mind couldn’t even consider.

If I can do it, you can too.

Story of Will and Oliver inspired by: Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: an integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective by Dan Grupe and Jack Nitschke, Nature Neuroscience Reviews

Neuroscience. Wall Street. C-Suite. Parent. Recovering Nervous Nelly.

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