Home Balanced Achievement Overcome Anxiety by Watching the ‘What-Ifs’

Overcome Anxiety by Watching the ‘What-Ifs’

In the United States, it is estimated that nearly 20% of adults are negatively affected by some sort of anxiety disorder. This means that for approximately 40 million Americans, persistent feelings of uneasiness, worry, and fear prohibit them from functioning normally, experiencing happiness, and moving their lives in positive directions. In hopes of reversing the debilitating effects of anxiety, doctors prescribe over 3 billion prescriptions each year, yet statistics remain largely the same.

When examining the lives of individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders, it is clear to see how particular cognitions act as the culprits that create an overly fearful reaction to potential events that rarely happen. Psychologist and anxiety expert David Barlow tells us that:

Anxiety is a future-oriented mood state in which one is not ready or prepared to attempt to cope with upcoming negative events.”

Regardless of the given circumstances, the root of every anxiety disorder can be similarly traced back to a negative cognitive pattern where individuals associate uncertain ‘what-if’ scenarios with potential negative outcomes. By discovering and disassociating one’s self from this universal thought pattern, which can disguise itself in many different ways, individuals can move beyond the debilitating grasp of anxiety.

The Countless Causes of Anxiety:

Psychologists believed that anxiety disorders are created by a combination of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors. It is assumed that anxiety is a natural function of the human brain, evolving from our cavemen ancestors that a small amount of anxiety can actually improve the performance of individuals. Since the human brain has evolved in a way that helps us stay out of harm’s way, by largely focusing on the negative, each of us naturally feels anxious in potentially hazardous situations. When anxiety spins out of control, however, people begin living in a state of excessive fear and isolate themselves from seemingly harmless situations.

There are over 10 distinctive classifications of anxiety disorders that manifest themselves in a seemingly endless amount of ways. Each case of anxiety will largely be dependent upon the individual’s cognitive associations and beliefs about particular people, situations, and circumstances. While one individual may fear the judgment of others in social settings, another may be anxious about the possibility of being put into a previously experienced traumatic situation. One individual may be overcome by thoughts of dying, yet still, another will cringe at the idea of running into the biggest of spiders.

A woman is shown in a subway looking around anxiously. She is suffering from an anxiety disorder.

Even though there are countless variations of anxiety disorders, based on an individual’s experiences, beliefs, and subjective worldview, at the heart of each case is a universal cognitive pattern of fearing the unknown. Instead of working to solve personal problems at the surface level, individuals who suffer from anxiety can more easily free themselves from its grips by uprooting the universal ‘what-if’ cognitive pattern.

The Universal Cognitive Pattern of Anxiety:

Regardless of the person, every case of anxiety revolves around individuals foreseeing worst-case scenarios when presented with unknown situations. Everyone who suffers from anxiety answers the ‘what-if’ questions of life in a negative and overtly fearful manner. While the fears that each of us has may look very different on the surface, there is an underlying cognitive pattern that is universal for all. The most efficient way to move beyond the grips of anxiety is to become aware of this internal dialogue pattern and disassociate one’s self from it.

For individuals who want to overcome anxiety, it will be imperative to become aware of their mental associations between ‘what-if’ scenarios and potentially negative outcomes. By consciously stepping outside of the self and analyzing what their thoughts are saying, individuals can begin to understand how anxiety is created this way. Many times when individuals watch their anxious thoughts, they will simply present themselves starting with the words ‘what-if’ before finishing with the worst-case scenario, however, the universal cognitive pattern of anxiety can also disguise itself in a variety of different ways.

In the most severe cases of anxiety, individuals will negatively project increased levels of certainty on unknown ‘what-if’ scenarios. For example, an individual may internally say “I will probably,” or “he or she is probably,” before finishing their thought, which is accompanied by a mental video, with the worst potential outcome. Even if someone was having a severe panic attack and internally telling themselves, “I am going to die, I am going to die,” they are only adding a false sense of certainty to an uncertain ‘what-if’ situation. Patterns like these look different than the dialogue pattern of ‘what if,’ yet in reality they are the exact same.

A man is shown in a sweatshirt and winter coat with his head looking down. He is suffering from anxiety.

In every instance of anxiety, an individual is associating negative outcomes with uncertain situations, and this manifests at the cognitive level as the ‘what-if’ of anxiety.

Overcoming Anxiety by Watching the What-Ifs:

In the worlds of psychology and spirituality, there are different strategies for overcoming mental health disorders such as anxiety. Psychologically speaking, a person who is suffering from anxiety may be told to observe their cognitions, challenge their anxious thoughts, and take behavioral steps to disprove them as true. Spiritually speaking, individuals have the ability to overcome anxiety by simply becoming aware of their thought and disassociating themselves from them. In both instances, an individual’s ability to be aware of their faulty cognitions is the first step towards emotional freedom. With this being said, three questions need to be asked:

  • Who is it that has the ability to watch these anxious thoughts?
  • Who is it that has the ability to observe your reaction to certain situations and circumstances?
  • Who is it that has the ability to objectively and non-judgmentally watch internal dialogue patterns play out in your head?

Spiritual wisdom tells us that the part of ourselves that has the observational capabilities to watch our anxious cognitions and disassociate from them is the most innate part of our being and it is in fact our true self. Celebrated Buddhist nun Pema Chodron speaks about this truth when she tells us:

You are the sky and everything else is just the weather.”

By reconnecting with this part of being and developing the awareness to watch our anxious thoughts, which can be done through the practice of meditation, we can begin to differentiate our inherent nature from the anxious cognitions in our heads.

A man looks at a passing storm. This picture represent the idea that individuals can watch anxiety come and go like the changing weather.

Whenever anxious thoughts arise, all that we have to do is to watch them come and go like the changing weather.

Once an individual becomes aware of the cognitive ‘what-if’ patterns in their head and begins to disassociate themselves from them, they will be well on their way to overcoming anxiety. It will be vitally essential for them to not think about the thoughts negatively, but only to allow them to pass with nonjudgmental acceptance. Additionally, it may be helpful for them to label every ‘what-if’ cognition as simply being a ‘thought.’

All that an individual must do to overcome anxiety is use their conscious awareness to differentiate their deepest nature from their anxious cognitions and return themselves to the present moment without being carried away by fear-driven thoughts. It is certain that by persistently doing this over time, individuals’ anxious cognitions will wilt away.

In addition to this simple practice, there are a number of other useful concepts and tips that can help quicken the process of overcoming anxiety. First, it can be useful to really think about what anxious cognitions are. If you examine any fearful thoughts, you will discover that they are nothing more than neurological synapses firing off in the brain. What are these synapses you may wonder? Science will tell us that at the most minute level, they are nothing more than energy moving together in a synchronized and conditioned way. It can also be useful to remember that everything in this world is impermanent in nature, meaning that it would be impossible for our anxious thought patterns to permanently stick around. Lastly, to make the process of overcoming anxiety even more timely, we can add the psychologically-based tool of systematic desensitization, which means taking behavioral steps to prove our anxious beliefs as wrong.

For those who deal with anxiety at any level, regardless of how it manifests itself on the surface, the easiest path to freedom comes in the form of awareness, nonjudgmental acceptance, and personal disassociation.

Whenever you are faced with anxious cognitions, remember what Pema Chodron so wisely says,

You are the sky and everything else is just the weather.”

1 comment

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[…] moving individuals beyond limiting ways of thinking, regardless of if they’re suffering from anxiety, depression, addiction or just low self-esteem, CBT therapists strive to uncover and transform […]


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