Two words: What If

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“I…have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened” – Mark Twain

What. If. When placed together, two of the most terrifying words in the English language.

I used to be incredibly impatient with anyone who started a sentence with “But what if…”. I had no time for catastrophizing, predicting the worst or worrying about things that haven’t even happened yet. Depending on the person in question, I’d either be upfront and say something along the lines of “I’m not going to listen to this ridiculous catastrophizing, you’re worrying about things that haven’t happened and that might never happen so pull yourself together”, or I’d keep those unsympathetic thoughts to myself and grow increasingly more irritated with this person/friend/acquaintance who was, I believed, indulging in utterly absurd fears.

Now, I know differently. I have experienced the utter terror that comes with a “what if” thought and I know you can’t just dismiss it. You can’t just pull yourself together, start thinking clearly or adopt any of the numerous ‘tough love’ phrases often used in dialogue accompanying “what if” conversations.

To give you an idea of the worries I often experience, here are a few of my scariest “what if” thoughts:

  • What if my anxiety gets worse and worse, to the point where I can no longer control it, go completely insane and have to be sectioned
  • What if I end up bailing on every social event there is because I’m always anxious, meaning I end up with a reputation for being a “bailer” which means no one will ever invite me to anything ever again
  • What if my closest friends and family decide they can no longer handle it and I end up completely alone with no one to talk to except people who are paid to be there
  • What if I forget everything I know to be true, lose all sense of self and forget who I am

I know these thoughts are absurd and ridiculous. I know that losing your mind doesn’t work like that and I know my friends and family will be hurt that I could ever think that of them. But knowing these things isn’t enough. When I’m in one of my most excruciating periods of anxiety, 1% of my brain is still being rational – but the other 99% completely believes the fear, and is paralysed by it.

A bit of background: I’m currently reading “The Worry Book” by Will van der Hart and Rob Waller. It’s a beautiful book (though a tough read at times), and full of really helpful explanations for why the brain behaves the way it does. They provide a very useful analysis of why we get “what if” thoughts, and why these thoughts are so much worse for those prone to excessive worry (like me). I’ll use my own words here, but essentially: everyone’s brain has a limbic system, which is our safety mechanism; it alerts us to danger. It’s obviously an essential part of our wiring and if, for example, you were to find a poisonous snake in your bathroom, it would be your limbic system that would tell you to get the hell out of there.

However, those prone to excessive worry have a very sensitive limbic system, “part of which (the amygdala) tends to fire out threats that are either disproportionate or completely unrealistic” (Will van der Hart and Rob Waller, “The Worry Book”). Reading this sentence for the first time was like someone flicking on a light in my brain (I’ve always wanted to say that, but it is genuinely true here). I realised I wasn’t going mad. The terrifying “what if” thoughts that burrow into my consciousness and make me doubt my very existence are generated by my overactive amygdala. That’s all it is.

If I had to guess (and I’m moving on to my own theories now), I’d say my threat avoidance system may have become overstimulated by being on that tube at Parsons Green last September. My (very tentative) theory is that my limbic system has therefore become oversensitive and my amygdala has started generating more scary, unrealistic thoughts. Furthermore, because my strategy has always been to instantly distract myself (in other words, running away from the fear like I would a poisonous snake, or like I actually did from a bomb), my brain has interpreted the fears as real – fears to be taken seriously, and to be terrified of. Thus, my threat avoidance system continues to be overactive, my amygdala continues to generate the scariest thoughts it can come up with and I continue to experience periods of crippling anxiety.

So how do I move on from here?

The only way to convince my brain that these thoughts shouldn’t be taken seriously is to sit with them. Rather than going into instant panic mode and instantly rushing to distract myself with anything I’ve got to hand, I need to practise sitting with the fear, observing it and ultimately helping my brain to understand that it’s really not that scary. I don’t need to run from it; it’s just a thought, and thoughts are insubstantial; they can’t hurt me.

Obviously, this is far easier said than done. When I’m shaking all over and overwhelmed by wave after wave of crushing anxiety, I’d probably lose my shit with anyone who told me to “just sit with the fear”. It will take practise and patience, and it won’t happen overnight. But in the immortal words of Joey: “Face your fear. If you have a fear of heights, you go to the top of the building. If you’re afraid of bugs…get a bug!”. Don’t confront it head on, don’t run from it – just be with it.

There is a way to gradually prevent these thoughts from appearing at all, and that’s to practise being present and being in the moment. But I’ve already written a far longer article than I originally intended so I will save that for a future post!

As always, any questions/observations/corrections (especially on my cautious neurological musings), please do get in touch!

LOW OF THE WEEK: To be honest, there hasn’t been a particular low – but I’ve been feeling horribly anxious for about seven days now. It comes in waves and some days are better than others, but for some reason it’s been more continually present than ever before. But having said that:

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Seeing my little brother graduate on Monday was just the best. He’s come so far (see previous post) and was very nervous about the ceremony, but he pushed through and ended up having the best day. Seeing him so happy and confident was so great for all of us.

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