Anxiety: ‘What-if’ thoughts and how to stop them in 3 easy steps

Anxiety: ‘What-if’ thoughts and how to stop them in 3 easy steps

What-if thoughts do serve a vital purpose.  At times we need to ascertain information or work through potential scenarios in order to help us make decisions in life.

However, these what-if scenarios, if left unchecked can spiral out of control and cause anxiety, worry or stress. The format or content of the what-if scenarios is as numerous as the people thinking them, as each is individual to the person and their particular circumstances at that time.

These can range from:

- What if I can’t pay the mortgage this month? (money-related)
- What if I lose my job because of being furloughed too long? (work-related)
- What-if my dad takes COVID? (health-related)
- What if I never get this weight shifted? (image related)
- What-if my partner cheats on me? (relationship related)

These thoughts can lead to anxiety, but we can also have anxiety-related what-if thoughts, for example:

- What-if I take a panic attack when I’m in the shop?
- What if I mess up the presentation and they fire me?
- What if I can’t cope being in the house all day every day for the next few weeks?

Chronic what-if thoughts are a habit that we have learned, either from a traumatic experience that we now deem it necessary to go over and over every possible what-if scenario in case it happens again; or are from repetitious thinking that we have gotten into the habit of doing.

The good news is these thought patterns can be broken and new habits developed. And this can be done in three easy steps.

Step 1:  Ask yourself ‘What is the worst-case scenario?’

Often, we recognise that we are caught in the spiral of the what-if thinking by our feelings. We may feel angry, sad, anxious, worried or stressed. Work on tuning into your thoughts on a regular basis and you will get to see your thoughts and be able to stop them from there. When you recognize that you are going over and over the what-if’s, stop yourself and ask yourself (out loud often helps): What is the worst-case scenario here? 

By doing this you are stopping the re-run of the what-if and it is usually this re-run after re-run of the thought that causes the anxiety.  It is like poking a bruise if you keep poking it and poking it, it gets worse and will never heal.  So, by facing the worst-case scenario you are in -effect stop beating yourself up. 

Often you will find that the worst-case scenario is not as bad as what you were thinking. But even if it is worse, at least now you have stopped beating yourself you with going over and over a bad scenario in your mind.

Step 2:  Ask yourself “Could I handle this?

And the answer is always Yes!  No matter what life throws at you, you can handle it. It may not be pleasant, and in some cases, it may bring hardship, but whatever it is you have the ability to handle it. 

I once had a client who had two children and was pregnant with a third. She had very bad anxiety over an issue at work. She was re-running scenarios over and over in her mind to the point where she had convinced herself that she was not liked or wanted in her team. So, to demonstrate this method and show he could apply it, we came up with the worst-case scenario is being the team forced her out and that she would lose her job.

Then I asked:  Could you handle this?  And her immediate reply was “No!  How would I be able to afford to live and with another baby on the way!” I pointed out, that because she had two dependents and another on the way was exactly the reason why she could handle it.  It would be hard, but she would find a way because she would have to feed her children.

Whatever it is you are facing you can handle it.

Step 3:  Ask yourself ‘What is the best-case scenario?

This is something we rarely do. Unless we are daydreaming about winning the lotto, or are in the throes of first love, we rarely go into what-if scenarios in the positive sense. And like we have created the habit of creating what-if situations in the negative sense, we can get into the habit of creating what-if situations in a positive context.

When you take the scenario, you have been playing over and over in the negative, take the same scenario and see the best possible outcome. Then notice how you feel doing this.

The aim is to feel good.  Though, initially, as we are not in the habit of thinking like this it might take a bit of practice. But it is worth it. What you have to remember is that all of this is taking place in your own mind.  Nowhere else.  And you have complete control over your thoughts. You cannot control with others will say or do, or what circumstances come your way, but you can control how you react to them and this is all done with thought. You control your thoughts. Your thoughts do not control you. So, get into the habit of thinking of the best-case scenarios and start living the life you dreamed of.

About the Author: Dympna Hannon MA BSc is the owner and chief practitioner at The Hannon Clinic, Belfast. A qualified Life Coach and Chinese Medicine Practitioner, Dympna’s approach is to look at the whole person when dealing with their pain, be it physical, mental or emotional. She has spent fifteen years studying the mind and its effects on the body, a passion which stems from suffering a breakdown as a result of workplace bullying. 

If you're feeling anxious then please don't hesitate to contact us for a FREE consultation with our mental health specialist at our Belfast clinic in Northern Ireland.

Call us on 078 2433 7933 or email us at