Overcoming Anxiety: Laughing at the “What-Ifs”

One of the clearest signs that you are experiencing anxiety is getting an attack of the “what-ifs.” The “what-ifs” are what happens when you you try to tell yourself that everything is going to be fine and then a voice pops into your head saying, “Yeah, but what if . . .?”

Recognizing that “what-ifs” are not true and are simply a symptom of anxiety is an important step in finding a solution to this distress.

Shelly is standing on the train platform waiting for the train to arrive. Her heart is pounding and her breath feels short. She tells herself there is nothing to worry about. Then another voice pops into her head. Yeah, but what if I get on the train and I can’t breathe, and I start going crazy, and the next stop is 30 minutes away, and I won’t be able to get off and, and, and . . .

What Shelly doesn’t realize is that the problem isn’t the train. The problem is that she is having an attack of the “what-ifs.” Change the scene to an elevator, a ski-slope, a business meeting, a public speech, or a first date. The words may change, but what stays the same is the phrase, “what if.”

If you are subject to anxiety, in that moment, you probably find it very hard to convince yourself that those what-ifs aren’t true. In fact, you might find it hard to believe what I am telling you right now as you are reading this.

One way to help let go of the “what-ifs” is to laugh at this voice instead of taking it seriously. But how can you find such a serious subject funny?

The great poet, Shel Silverstein, wrote a poem called, “Whatif?” The first few lines go like this,

Last night, while I lay thinking here,
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang the same old Whatif song:

Inspired by this poem, my daughter’s 2nd grade class wrote their versions of what-if poems. Here are a few examples of what they wrote.

What if I won’t be able to sit up straight
What if I never get a date
What if a boa constrictor gets into the shower
What if I fall off a great big tower

What if a ghost comes out of the dark
What if I get bitten by a hungry shark
What if I can never go shopping at the mall
What if I never learn to bounce a basketball

If you suffer from the what ifs, try this yourself. It might help you remember that just because something pops in your head doesn’t make it true.

By recognizing that “what-ifs” are a sign or symptom of anxiety, instead of avoiding or worrying, you can put your attention to calming down your body by turning down the Inner Alarm System, and turning up the Inner Safe System. Take a look at Shrinky, below. He might make you smile and remind you that laughing at the “what-ifs” is an important part of the solution for your anxiety.


Dr. Glenn Berger is a psychotherapist, relationship counselor, business and artist’s coach, and young person’s mentor. He sees patients in New York City, in Mt. Kisco, NY, and around the world by Skype.

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