Shutting Down the What-Ifs

All week, we are talking about identifying stress. So far we’ve touched on ways to identify a lot of external stresses out there, but today we’re going to talk about if your own brain is actually working to make you even more stressed. The biggest culprit of this is the WHAT IF.

We’ve all been there. Something stressful comes into our life, and then our brain totally spins it out of control. Maybe we hear layoffs are coming in our company, and our brain what ifs our way into being homeless and never getting a job again. Maybe we

One thing that ALWAYS triggers it for me is if someone messages me saying “Hey, do you have time to chat later?” In my brain, that means that I am getting fired or they want to break up with me or they have cancer. What they actually mean is hey friend I wanna catch up and we have busy lives, so I’m free later if you are. But my brain just automatically spins out of control.

So what do we do when this happens to us?

Studies have shown that when these thoughts hit, we have about a minute where we can easily rein them in before they get a lot wilder and we get a lot harder. If you are aware in that minute, the best thing you can do is distract yourself. Think of unlikely animal friendships. Clap your hands. Sing a little song to yourself. Multiply big numbers together.

If it’s too late and you’re down the hole, here are a couple tools to help you.

  1. Write down all the thoughts going through your head. You’ll be able to come back to them later and realize that they aren’t true, which will help make the cycle easier to break next time.
  2. Go hard. As your brain starts asking what ifs, keep it going! Help it create wilder and wilder scenarios until you can see how silly it’s being. Let’s use layoffs as our example. Your mind what ifs you into not paying rent and being homeless. Keep what iffing it! What if now that you’re homeless the only job you can get is being a carny? What if you’re forced to help children try to throw the ring on the bottle for all of time? What if that’s where you finally find true love with the man who runs the swinging ship? What if you want to start a family – will you have to give up your traveling life to settle down? And so on.
  3. Ask yourself WHY you’re thinking what you’re thinking. The what ifs come from a place of stress and anxiety, and often a place of fear. Using layoffs again, if you ask yourself why you are thinking all of this, the answer is probably because you have a lot of stress about money. Once you have the why, you can take action. If it’s stress about money, maybe you decide to create a budget or decide to get a part time job or decide to cut out cable. Small changes may not fix the issue, but it will change your brain, because it will allow it to recognize you as someone who is in control.


Once you’re out of the cycle, there are a couple lifestyle changes that can help you become less prone to the what ifs. Exercise, meditation, and gratitude journaling are the big three. They come up time and time again as basically the answers to everything. Even if you can just set five minutes aside to do one of those three things a day, you should start seeing some lovely changes in your life.

I hope this is helpful for you guys. Let me know in the comments if you have any other tricks for getting out of the what if cycle!


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