The very nature of anxiety is future oriented. Biologically, anxiety motivates us to prepare for and anticipate future outcomes, whether it be a few moments in the future or years from now. Anxiety is characterized by the phrase, “What if?”
“What if I fail?” “What if I embarrass myself?” “What if I lose control?” “What if I don’t get it all done?” “What if I let down the people I care about?” “What if he/she abandons me?” “What if I’m not enough?”
When our brains are faced with problems and questions such as these, it can’t help but focus on them with a mighty tunnel vision in an effort to “solve” the problem. The very process takes us out of the present moment and gives us the illusion that we’re doing something to solve the problem. The dilemma is that these are not problems that can be “solved” in the brain like calculating a math problem.
In fact, this is a process that we call “Worry.” We often use worry as a strategy to feel as though we’ve got some kind of control over uncertainty. But the process of worry is futile when we’ve done everything we can do and the uncertainty still exists.
The thing is, uncertainty will always exist, these “What if’s” will always pop up in the back of our minds, and there is always a chance that they could come true IF WE SELF-SABATAGE AND FEED THEM. It hurts to shine light on these realities. I’d like to say the opposite—That there is no uncertainty, that the “What if’s” will go away, and that there’s no chance they could ever come true, but that would be telling a lie.
Uncertainty is a driver of anxiety and worry. I talk a lot about the power of changing your relationship with anxiety. Well, changing your relationship with uncertainty is another powerful way to change your relationship with anxiety. That is, learning to embrace uncertainty, especially after you have done all that is realistically within your control.
Even good ol’ Walt Disney said, “Why worry? If you’ve done the very best you can, worrying won’t make it any better.”
“But how the heck do I embrace uncertainty?,” You may ask. First of all, use you’re your values as guides. Those “What if” questions up there are likely about a feared outcome that is in conflict with your values. Try to identify that value and take action accordingly. For example, if you are afraid of not being enough, what are the qualities that you value about yourself that remind you you ARE enough? Act in accordance with those qualities.
Following this, another trick that can be helpful is to flip your “What if’s” around. Instead of “What if I fail?,” say “What if I succeed?” Instead of “What if I embarrass myself,” say “What if I kill it?!” Instead of “What if I’m not enough,” say “What if I’m MORE than enough?!”
Second of all, engage in the present moment, where life is actually happening. Your anxiety will try to divert your attention to the future and to your “What if’s,” and that is ok. That is just what anxiety does. Acknowledge this process and anchor yourself to the present. What is happening around you in this moment? Who is with you? How can you make the present more meaningful with your values? Focusing on the present is not easy and takes practice and intention. In next week’s blog, I will discuss more tools for anchoring yourself to the present.
Have courage and kind wishes!
Tannah E. Chase, Ph.D.
The Anxiety Counseling Clinic, P.L.L.C.