The Two Words Behind Most Fears

Fear does not just occur out of the blue.

Posted Sep 02, 2019

Fearful woman; Pixabay Public Domain
Source: Fearful woman; Pixabay Public Domain

Tasha had intense physical reactions about going to an after-work party, especially when her friend Lori kept sending her text messages about how great it would be. Just thinking about being around a lot of people she might not know got her really anxious. Her face got hot, there were butterflies in her stomach, and she started to feel dizzy. These sensations seemed to come out of the blue until she remembered that they were her typical signals of anxiety.

Tasha saw me for counseling as a result of panic after she had refused to go to the party. Together, we worked on her starting to tune in to her anxious thoughts.

She discovered that her thoughts about this party went like this: Lori wants me to go with her to this really cool party, but WHAT IF everyone notices how awkward I am? There’s no way I can do this! I’ll definitely say something stupid, and people will just think I’m a pathetic, weirdo loser. Everyone can enjoy parties so easily and laugh with their friends, but I stand in the corner like a nervous wreck. I’d rather sit at home than be humiliated.

Would you say that Tasha's what-if thoughts sparked her to jump to negative conclusions and make harmful self-comparisons? As you can see, it’s important to learn to recognize alarming, negative what-if thoughts so they don’t lead to anxiety and get in the way of your plans and responsibilities.

Tasha’s bodily reactions show that when stressful situations and events occur, your reacting brain can jump into fight, flight, or freeze mode, resulting in inaccurate, negative thoughts and producing upsetting feelings and behaviors that may not serve you well. In Tasha’s case, she decided not to go to the party and regretted missing out on a good time.  

How to Cope

To manage that fear-sparking “What if?” question (i.e., catastrophizing), try coming up with an acceptance-based answer. This classic seven-word question, “What’s the worst that can honestly happen?” is a great one to play out mentally to remember that you will likely be okay, at least in most situations. Or, take your what-if dispute down to a three-word counterpunch by adding “so” to the question: “So what if …?”

Forexample, Tasha could have challenged her what-if thought by thinking it through in this way: The worst thing that could happen is that people notice I seem awkward [or, "So what if people think I'm awkward?] And, if that becomes the case, then who cares? I mean, yeah, it would be unpleasant, but it is not the worst thing that could happen to me.

What If I’m Too Stressed-Out to Challenge My What-If?

When the walls are closing in, and you feel overpowered by what-if-related anxiety, it may not seem possible for you to notice, evaluate, and change your irrational thoughts. On the contrary: It’s the perfect time to evaluate and dispute them. Just start by focusing on your breathing to help you calm down.

Deep breathing can be a helpful way to settle your mind. It’s a fundamental exercise in mindfulness. Mindfulness involves gaining awareness of what’s going on in your mind and body in the here and now.

Focusing on the present is one way to help yourself stop worrying about the future or brooding over the past. And taking a minute to get in touch with your body is great for helping you get a little freedom from the thoughts on your mind.

Because you’re always breathing, you can always just think about your breathing more, in order to think about other stuff less. As a bonus, the sensations of breathing tend to be mildly pleasant—or, at least, not uncomfortable.

The internet is full of quality deep-breathing videos. Look for one that uses belly breathing, which is all about directing your breath down to your diaphragm and back up for a slow inhale. Do belly breathing for three-to-five slow, mindful breaths, and you can reset your reacting brain to calm down enough to use your prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) to challenge your what-ifs.