The Allure and Trap of Anticipating Danger

Is “what-if” thinking helpful or harmful?

Posted Aug 31, 2019

After experiencing trauma, it is reasonable to want to make sure that you are never, ever, in a dangerous situation again. It is natural to become hyper-alert as a way to detect danger.

However, people become so good at anticipating danger and imagining scenarios of what could potentially happen, that they engage in “what-if” thinking. For example, “What if I go to an event or place (e.g., a concert, grocery store, party) and I am attacked?” “What if I trust someone and I am hurt/betrayed/mistreated?” 

We create scenarios in our minds and then automatically respond. When we think about danger, the brain sends a message to mobilize the body for protection such as fighting or fleeing from the threat. You may notice that your heart rate will increase, tension builds in your muscles, and that you will be holding your breath.

The thought follows, “Well, if this could happen, then there is no way I am going to go there!” The strategy is to imagine everything bad that could happen and then try to avoid it. While it is prudent to be prepared for certain situations, the problem with the what-if strategy is that the better you become at imaging danger, the more reactive, and therefore, the more fearful you become. Instead, of feeling calmer and safer (which is ultimately the goal), what-if thinking increases mobilization (e.g., fight/flight responses.

It is impossible to predict future events, and it is impossible to control things that are not in your control. However, we are drawn into what-if thinking because it gives people a false sense of control (e.g., if I can think it, then I can prepare, avoid, or control it). Furthermore, many anticipated scenarios are absolutely plausible. That is the allure. These things COULD potentially happen. But, most of the scenarios are probably not going to happen. In other words, while it is possible to be attacked at a store, in all likelihood, it is not probable. Non-traumatized people shop every day at stores without these thoughts.  

In addition, what-if thinking tends to only focus on negative what-ifs. What about positive what-ifs?  Are they not also possible?   

Regardless, some may argue, that they would rather be prepared, just in case. However, because what-if scenarios tend not to be probable, then what-if thoughts are not effective preparation. It is a trap to think avoidance is protective because you can spend years of your life avoiding situations that never happen. The thinker thinks they are safe by avoiding situations, but truly the only thing they are avoiding is engaging in life experiences.

If you are considering that maybe what-if thinking is increasing your anxiety and limiting your life, and maybe you are worried that you can’t stop, then let’s consider a different strategy: the “what-is” strategy. This strategy brings the focus to what is happening right now. It helps the thinker stay present; hence, what is (instead of what isn’t). The thinker literally speaks themselves back to the now.

When what-if thoughts are activated, then the what-is strategy is to confront the thoughts and say to oneself, that the what-if scenario is not happening right now. And then state what IS happening (e.g., “I am getting ready to go to the store. I am opening my front door, walking to my car, driving down the street”) labeling each moment as it arises. “I am sitting. I am reading. I am breathing.” This brings the thinker to right now, where he or she is fine. This is the place of calm and safety. “Right now, I am fine.”

Finally, it is important to trust that if and when you do need to mobilize for action that you certainly will.  But right now… in this breath, in this moment, you are ok.

Daily challenge:

Practice saying to yourself, “In this breath, I am ok.” Label what is happening as it arises, grounding yourself in each particular breath.  If and when what-if thinking sneaks up on you, confront it by reminding yourself that it is not happening and focusing on what is happening. Allow yourself to be ok, stay present, and breathe!