‘What ifs’ seem to pop into my brain as soon as I’m in a situation where I can’t control or influence the outcome. And they’re really not helpful!
On Friday my dog, Winston, had surgery to remove a lump from his lower eye lid. We were out on a hike and he must’ve stuck his head in a bush or something and he scratched his cornea. The vet gave him drops but the cornea wasn’t healing and she noticed that the lump was now pressing on his eye and stopping him from healing properly. The lump had to come off!
Now, the rational part of my brain knew that he’d be fine. He’s 10 years old but pretty fit and healthy with no serious health issues. I knew his vet was going to look after him and keep him safe. Logic dictated that he would be okay.
The emotional part of my brain was absolutely terrified that something would go wrong and my baby boy wouldn’t come home again. I cried on and off for 2 days leading up to the operation and barely slept.
The surgery went well and he should be healed within the next couple of weeks. I picked him up late afternoon and he was disoriented and tired. He cried for most of the evening as he couldn’t settle. I was equipped with blankets, cushions and a book so happy to stay up with him and keep him company. We both managed to get a few hours of sleep on and off so that’s better than I expected. He spent the rest of the weekend snoozing by my side.
Why am I telling you about this?
Well I realised how easily my brain jumps to the negative “what ifs” when I’m scare or anxious and it doesn’t even considered looking at the positive versions of this question.
In the days building up to the surgery, I was thinking about how I was going to cope if Winston didn’t make it. He is my first thought when I wake up every single day. That’s mainly because he’s woken me up and wants some attention but it’s always worth it. Even at 5am!
My day would change the second I woke up. What would I do with his stuff? How would I tell my mum that her grandson hadn’t made it? How long would it take for me to stop expecting him to do his happy dance when I came home? And so many other things.
It wasn’t until I’d dropped him off to the vets and prayed to every god/spirit/superhero that I started thinking “if he makes it then we’ll go here” or “if he makes it then I’m going to learn how to do doggy massage” etc. Why does it take something to threaten a loved one in your life (or even your own life) before we start doing all the things we really want to do?
Why couldn’t my brain have automatically defaulted to “he’s going to be fine and then we’ll go hiking again but he’s definitely wearing safety goggles next time!”
Why do ‘what ifs’ happen?
I think it all comes back to what your default mood/thoughts/feelings are. Are you generally an optimist person or do you dwell on the negative? I tend to be a mixture of both but my brain heads straight for the negative as soon as something comes along that is too strong for the optimism side to cope with.
My best friend is very optimistic and could have an awful day but then be given a free lollipop and that’s the bit she would focus on. Her brain is a happy place to be.
My mood can change so quickly that it knocks me off balance and it can take time for me to hone in on what the real cause is. 99% of the time it’s me feeling insecure about something and I react (sorry boyfriend!). When I stop and think, I can usually talk myself back around quite quickly. That is a perfect example of my emotional brain taking a big leap and then my rational brain swooping in to save the day.
So what can we do about it?
I try to stop myself as soon as I realise I’m asking the ‘what ifs’ questions. I’ll ask myself “is that true?”, “can I control the situation?” or “how likely is it to happen?”. Other questions that can help me are “why am I feeling like this?”, “am I overacting or overthinking the situation?” or “what am I not providing for myself that I need?”.
There are times when I can talk myself round and times when I just can’t. This time I tried the questions, I tried logical/rational thinking but my emotions were just too strong. The outcome of this situation was literally life or death for my boy and it was completely out of my control.
When all the other questions fail, there is one other question that I feel is a very important one. It is simply “what can I do right now to make myself feel better?”
I found talking about it helped. I told my boyfriend about all the things that were worrying me and why. Just saying them out loud made them seem less overwhelming, I felt like I’d shared my worries and had someone to help me deal with them.
Dealing with the ‘what ifs’ isn’t easy but I have a few tools in my belt now to help me identify the reason(s) behind them and to make them less scary.
What do you do when the ‘what ifs’ enter your head? Have you got any tips or tactics for dealing with them? If so, I’d love to hear from you via my contact page.