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"What If"​ Can Be Bad For Your Health!

Logan and I are no different from anyone else: when faced with the unknown (especially something scary) we go straight to "what if...?" Log went to the dentist today after several years of dreading and avoiding it, with the expectation and fear that it would be long, painful, and just the first of many more appointments to come. You can guess what really happened: it took less than an hour and she's done for the year.

Imagining negative (scary, painful, costly) outcomes - the "what if's" - is normal, and it's also bad for you, if you don't ask the question with intention.

There's always room for planning, and asking "what if" around possible contingencies is part of that. The more experience we have with something, the more specific our what-ifs tend to be. If asking about possibilities helps you prepare realistically, that's all to the good - keep that up!

But - and it's a BIG but - what about your imagination combined with anxiety, taking over and running wild? It is all too easy to not notice the transition from reasonable prospects to nightmarish scenarios with absolutely no basis in reality. And once you're there, it's hard to get out.

It's also bad for your emotional, mental and physical health. Out of control what-if scenarios can trigger your body's sympathetic system to release stress hormones like cortisol and suppress your immune system, affect your heart health, and lead to depression.

Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain, tells us that 85% of what we worry about never happens. That's a LOT of energy, time, and emotion that we could put to much more effective (and happier) use. For every list of 10"what if's" you come up with, 8 of them are never going to happen - and that isn't just not helping you plan, it's doing real harm.

So, what can you do in the face of "what if"?

Take these three steps when you notice your imagination taking you into scary places that aren't helpful:

  • Pause. Take three slow, deep breaths. As you continue to breathe, try to extend your exhale so it's longer than the inhale - this engages your vagus nerve, releasing a natural self-made tranquilizer (acetylcholine) into the heart. It provides immediate soothing to your parasympathetic nervous system. You can learn more here.

  • Get grounded. As you breathe slowly, look around your environment. Notice the things around you, and feel the weight of your body resting on whatever surface is supporting you. Pay attention to the sounds, smells, and physical sensations in this moment. Remember to breathe, and move your body gently to see what's there.

  • Remind yourself you're safe. Whisper or speak out loud whatever affirmation of safety feels most real to you in this moment. Things like "I am safe and have what I need in this moment" or "the universe supports me, like the ground beneath me." You can go here for other affirmations of safety, as well as other tools for mental wellness. It can also be helpful to find an image to keep with you as a reminder (an animal companion, or place you love).

And above all, remind yourself of all the times you worried about something that didn't happen, and then proceeded to deal with a situation you never saw coming. You rocked those situations and you'll rock whatever is happening for you now, have no doubt!

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