The way we think has a big impact on the way we feel. And there are a few thoughts which are particularly good at triggering anxiety and stress. In this post, you’ll learn about these trigger thoughts and what you can do about them.
The first and most notorious of all: What if? For everyone who struggles with excessive worry, this little phrase is at the core of anxiety. Thinking What if? leads us to imagine the most unlikely negative scenarios and forces our imagination to face the worst that could happen.
What if this mole turns out to be malign?
Grandpa hasn’t called. Maybe he had an accident?
What if my friends don’t really like me at all?
What if I make a fool out of myself?
We usually ask What if? because we believe that this helps us prepare for every possible outcome. And even though there’s a grain of truth to that, it’s mostly wrong. This king of thinking puts our focus on potential problems and we tend to forget about solutions. Many psychologists actually go so far as to say that worrying is the very reason who feel anxious. And that makes What if? the main culprit for all of us who can’t get their anxiety under control.
While What if? is focused on negative future scenarios, it also has a little brother. This brother is called ‘rumination’ and his focus is on the past. It usually starts with the question Why?.
Why did my colleague look at me so suspiciously?
Why did my partner not call during their business trip?
Why did this happen? Why that?
The goal behind those why-questions is to analyse and understand the situation. You might interject that it’s good to understand past situations and why they happened. But that’s not what asking Why? does for us.
Instead of getting to the bottom of a problem and finally figuring it out, Why? has us repeat past mistakes in our head and relive uncomfortable experiences like a broken record. This just makes us miserable and usually doesn’t get us anywhere. On the contrary, Why? keeps us stuck in our heads instead of allowing us to focus on what we could do right now.
Why me? is problematic for a couple of reasons: First and foremost, it puts ourselves in the position of a victim. If we ask Why me? we’re looking for the fault in other people. At the same time, we’re denying responsibility and often end up feeling helpless and resentful.
Why me? What did I do to deserve this?
Why don’t my relationships ever work out?
I got laid off again — why me?
No wonder these questions make us feel bad. This kind of self-talk makes us believe that life is unfair and that we’re powerless in face of those circumstances. And while there are times when this is partly true, asking Why me? is never a helpful way to react.
What can I do about the problem?
When thoughts like those come up, it’s hard to simply stop them. (After all, noticing them in the first place is damn hard!) Instead, we need to focus on what we can control. While we don’t have immediate control over other people’s actions and our life circumstances, we can control our own actions. And that’s why we need to ask ourselves: What can I do about the problem?
The goal is to get out of our head and take action instead of remaining in a downward spiral of negative, repetitive thoughts. Taking even a small step can make a big difference — and it can influence both our situation and our mindset.
Will this matter in a year from now?
Sometimes though, there’s nothing that we can do and no one to help us. In short, we see no way out. In this case, it’s probably time to shift our perspective. One question to do just that: Will this matter in a year from now?
It won’t solve any problem but it will help you put stressful situations into perspective. It’s described in the book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”:
Whether it be an argument with your spouse, child, or boss, a mistake, a lost opportunity, a lost wallet, a work-related rejection, or a sprained ankle, chances are, a year from not you aren’t going to care.
What is going right at the moment?
Last but not least, always remember this. Even on our worst days, some things are still going right. Do you have your health? Are you free of pain? Do your eyes, legs, ears work? Do you have a roof over your head? Do you have enough to eat? If the answer is yes to at least one of these questions, things could be worse. It might be hard to see the silver lining sometimes. But asking what’s right can really help put things in perspective.
These alternative ways of thinking aren’t a panacea, of course. It’s not easy to change our thoughts and it requires practice to effectively handle them. In some moments, though, you might catch yourself asking What if? or Why (me)? And that’s your chance to start thinking differently.
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