Friday, August 30, 2013

Scary what if thinking and obsessive thoughts

If you struggle with anxiety, you might have obsessive thoughts or scary “what if” thinking.
People who have anxiety, often times, have very vivid imaginations.  All it takes is one simple word like “thunderstorm” and we have the whole scenario played out in our heads in a matter of seconds.  First, there is lightning, hail, torrential downpours, and then a tornado.  The violent winds knock down houses and business.  Families are destroyed, memories are lost, and the Red Cross has to step in for relief.

Before the storm even gets close, we put ourselves in a state of panic.

The reality is; 99 times out of 100 nothing bad happens.  The panic and anxiety was for nothing.  Everything always turns out OK.

This anxiety is sometimes called “what if” thinking or “anticipatory” anxiety.  It can be brought on by a number of things.  A lot of people have anxiety with: driving, going out to dinner, going anywhere, flying, going on trips or vacations, going to the doctor, the dentist, the hair dresser, going to church, being in small rooms, in hotels.  Feeling trapped is a huge trigger for anxiety or panic attacks.  If you are someplace where you feel like you have “no way out”, then that could cause you anxiety.

Our life experiences sometimes determine which things cause us anxiety and which things don’t.  If you let anxiety and panic run your life, however, you will eventually experience anxiety doing everything.
The more you let anxiety rule your decisions, the more you have to obey them.

Sometimes, people who deal with chronic anxiety experience obsessive scary thoughts.  For example, “I am afraid I am going to hurt someone or myself”.  When I am experience too much stress, or if I am in a panic situation, my mind focuses on scary thoughts.  Like, “What if I crash my car into oncoming traffic” or “What if I go crazy and run away and leave all my loved ones behind”.  I have thought the most ridiculous thoughts, you'd be surprised.  There is really no end to my twisted thoughts during a panic attack.

Recently, (from the Attacking Anxiety and Depression Tapes) I learned that this reaction is the mind’s normal coping skill.  Think of it as your mind’s way of distracting you from what’s really bothering you.

The scary obsessive thoughts only come around when you are in the midst of severe anxiety.  The truth is; you are experiencing the “what if” thinking because you don’t want to face the main problem(s).

For me, when I had the most scary thoughts it was when I was trying to keep a very stressful job.  What I really needed to do was talk to my boss and let them know that I couldn’t keep up.  Instead, I just obsessed about crashing my car on the way to work.

Other examples of scary thoughts people have during anxiety: killing yourself, injuring your children, going crazy, dying of cancer or a heart attack, etc.

Lots of people suffer from scary thoughts.  What not many people know, however, is how to deal with them.
Here’s the key: you are never going to act of your obsessive scary thoughts.
Scary thoughts are a symptom of anxiety.  You will NOT act on them.  Thoughts are just thoughts.  They come and go like the weather.  Your thoughts do NOT dictate your actions.  You are not your thoughts, you are so much more.

Unfortuately, at first, you do not have control over your scary thoughts.  With time, you can retrain the thoughts by practicing.  You have to redirect your scary thoughts and remind yourself that they will pass.  If you can’t stop the bad thoughts from tormenting you, sit down and wait for them to pass…they will pass, I promise…  The important part is to remind yourself that you will NOT act on them.  You are NOT crazy, you are just like millions of people in this world.   You WILL be OK.

You won’t believe me at first.  You’ll feel like you’re the worst case in the history of man and anxiety.  And, you’ll feel like there is no hope for you.  I was the same way; I felt like I was incurable too.  But, millions of people are just like you in the way you struggle with anxiety.

What will separate you from the rest is how you deal.  What you have to do is replace the “what if” or “scary” thinking with empowering thoughts.  Purposefully change your thoughts from negative to positive.
For example:
Instead of “what if” I make a fool of myself, I go crazy, I have to leave, I lose my mind, I lose my job, I jump off the balcony, I go crazy on the plane, I have a heart attack, I have cancer, I lose my friends, I fail…
Think: these are just scary thoughts, I will NOT act on them, I am NOT crazy, I am normal, I will be OK, I am a strong person, I can get through this, I choose not to give in to these thoughts, I am more than my thoughts, feelings are NOT facts, I am capable of getting through this, I have coping skills to help me in these situations, etc.

Another helpful tool is dwelling on the negative for little bit.  So what if these bad things happen anyway?  What is the worst possible scenario?  If you must, take it to the negative, realize what you are truly afraid of, then go to the positive.  Click here to read more.

Don’t get me wrong; bad things do happen occasionally.  That’s the unfortunate thing about this world.  And it’s OK to prepare for them realistically...realistically.  (If you're not sure what "realistic" reactions are for you, talk to a trusted friend or family memeber.)  I am not saying that you shouldn’t be responsible anymore.  I am not saying that you should throw out your budget, walk down a dark alley at night in the city alone, or even do everything by yourself.  It is OK, to be realistic, responsible, and to take care of yourself.  Our society is trending toward fear-based decisions and over-cautious reactions.

I think because of modern media, news, internet, etc, we hear too much of the bad in the world and not enough of the good.  Think of all the scary things that are on TV.  Think of all the scary movies you’ve seen.  Think of all the horrible news you’ve heard on a daily basis.  No wonder millions of people suffer from “what if” scary thinking and anxiety!  The culture is not helping our cause.  You won't get better if you are constantly emersed in media.

Take a break from the news and fear-based media.  Do a technology fast for a few weeks.  I guarantee it will help you overcome your anxiety.  Then when you’ve developed good coping skills, you’ll be able to hear it again and not be as affected by it.
In conclusion, scary, "what if" thinking is normal.  You are not crazy and you are not alone.  The best way to deal with your obsessive anxiety is to confront the real issue.  Anxiety is just the mask.  It is also important to be kind to yourself and remind yourself that you will NOT act on your scary thoughts, and the bad "what if" things in your head will NOT happen either.  If it is helpful, do a media or technology fast.  It will only speed your recovery.
Good luck on your road to peace.  Thank you for reading.  See you next time!


  1. This article is 3 years old and I need to check to see if the website is updated, but if you see this comment, I just want to say, THANK YOU! I've been experiencing in and out periods of very scary "what if's", though with long breaks between them, but at the moment I feel I am on the low phase, or better shall I phrase it, the ups and downs. It feels good to know I am not alone, and things do get better. Thanks again.
    Love from Morocco!

    1. Thank you for your comment! You are definitely never alone.