Taming The 'What Ifs'

We may not be able to run away from our worries, but how do we keep them from running our lives? We asked a handful of experts for tips on how to get a grip in these challenging times

Jill Buchner with Ishani Nandi Published Aug 9, 2020 00:00:00 IST
Taming The 'What Ifs' All illustrations by Josh Holinaty

Defining Distress

We often use the terms ‘worry’, ‘stress’, and ‘anxiety’ interchangeably, but they aren’t the same. Each has unique qualities, and identifying which one is plaguing us will help us better address it. Psychologist Kristin Buhr, co-author of The Worry Workbook, breaks down the differences.

  • Worry is a negative thought you have about an uncertainty in life. Worries tend to focus on the assumption that something negative will come from future events or from the outcomes of occurrences that happened in the past.
  • Stress involves your reaction to pressures placed on you. You feel spread thin or are overwhelmed because life is demanding too much of your limited time, energy or some other personal resource. While worries are thoughts, stress is a feeling.
  • Anxiety is your mental and physiological response to a perceived threat. It’s like the body’s smoke detector—it senses danger and signals your body to rev up to deal with it. While worry takes place only in the mind, anxiety can have physical effects, such as speeding up your heart rate. Worry can, however, trigger anxiety when your mind perceives imagined ‘what ifs’ as real threats.


While worry, stress and anxiety are normal, intense and frequent anxiety can become a problem. You might have an anxiety disorder if, for instance, you have recurring sleep issues or you’re skipping out on your customary activities.

Excessive anxiety can be focused on a fear of something specific, such as social gatherings (known as social anxiety) or a host of experiences (known as generalized anxiety disorder).


Why Worrying Can Be Worth It

1. It protects you

“If you’re not at all concerned there could be danger, you’re not going to take precautions,” says Buhr. That voice of worry can remind you to put on your seat belt or check that you turned off the stove. It keeps you safe.

2. It motivates you

Whether you have a speech to deliver or a home renovation to tackle, thinking about what could go wrong can spur you to get to work. “A little bit of worry lets you know what’s important and might actually move you to prepare,” says Buhr.

3. It promotes problem solving

A 2006 study published in the journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping tracked the worries of university students and found that they were often solving problems while they were agonizing. So, while it feels unpleasant, worry can be productive.



What Are Indians Most Worried About?

According to the May 2020 edition of the monthly global study What Worries The World conducted by the multinational market research company Ipsos, the top three sources of worry among Indians include the current coronavirus pandemic, which leads the list at 65 per cent; unemployment, cited by 49 per cent; poverty and social inequality—31 per cent. Each of these saw an uptick from the April poll with unemployment showing the biggest rise of the three at 11 per cent. The survey was held online among adults between 16 and 74 years of age in 27 countries around the world.

However, certain worries, such as those regarding corruption—financial and political—and crime and violence have each seen a five per cent decline compared to the April 2020 survey. Also, the majority of surveyed Indians—72 per cent—feel optimistic that as a country we are headed in the right direction, a seven per cent surge from the previous month.

Another pan-India study titled Understanding Public Sentiment During Lockdown by IIM-Lucknow’s Centre for Marketing in Emerging Economies found that while 79 per cent of the respondents were worried and feeling fear (40 per cent) and sadness (22 per cent), 60 per cent felt confident in India’s ability to emerge from the current crisis citing government measures and individual safety protocols.



Ditch ‘What If’

If you’re an excessive worrier, you probably have trouble dealing with uncertainty because you’re concerned it will lead to a negative result. What’s more, you likely believe that you won’t be able to manage that outcome.

Buhr says that’s why most worriers develop generally negative “safety behaviours” to help them avoid risks, such as opting out of situations that scare them or asking for affirmation from others when they’re unsure. The trouble is, you can’t avoid uncertainty entirely, and the more you try to, the scarier it will seem. Fortunately, most of the time things turn out just fine, but telling a worrier this is unlikely to calm their nerves.

The best way to get comfortable with uncertainty is to expose yourself to it and see that those imagined worst-case scenarios rarely happen. Even when something does go wrong, you can handle it. So, if you tend to worry about being late for appointments and always leave 30 minutes earlier than necessary, Buhr suggests doing away with that buffer. You’ll see that you do make it in time or, if you don’t, the person you’re meeting will likely be understanding. After starting with simple changes, work your way up to bigger risks—such as a career shift.

worry-6_080720081104.jpgPhoto: Shutterstock


How To Tackle Worry

Learn to let go

We all multitask but when job lists run long, it can overwhelm you. “Worrying about how to manage five or six things perfectly at the same time, and trying to do so, will only lead to frustration or burnout. Be honest and reasonable about what absolutely must be done and prioritize those. Learn to let go of, or at least postpone, the rest,” says clinical psychologist Dr Vandita Dubey, who runs online emotional well-being workshops. “If you have the option to delegate responsibility and tasks, do so,” she adds. “People have a hard time with this because they like to do things a certain way, but letting go and allowing others to do things their way will leave you more capable of focusing on your own tasks.” Bottom line: It’s more important that some jobs get done, rather than how.

Reset goals and expectations

Setting the bar too high can make you feel like you are chasing an unattainable goal and that you are compromising or failing to succeed. “Re-examine and, where possible, scale down expectations. Acknowledge and accept the new normal, and until things change, create new definitions that align with the new reality. A pristine house could mean a once-a-week instead of a daily deep-clean; family dinners can be a quick soup and sandwich, instead of a three-course feast, for instance,” Dubey suggests.

Try to unplug

When chaos and turmoil surrounds us, our natural reaction is hypervigilance. We pore over every news update and scroll incessantly looking for the latest tweet or post, regardless of whether it affects us directly or not. While it’s important to stay informed, the resulting information overload can lead to what experts call ‘crisis fatigue’ and escalate our worries. “Stay informed but steer clear of dwelling on events and circumstances that are not under your control. Draw up a list of things you can be on top of and take charge,” says Dr Jai Ranjan Ram, senior consultant psychiatrist and co-founder of Mental Health Foundation, Kolkata.


Look within

When stresses accumulate, it’s easy to lose sight of the ‘why’ in your daily life. “Every person, whether consciously or not, has something they deeply value,” says Dubey. “Whether it’s financial independence, being a good parent, taking care of elderly relatives or rising up the ranks professionally—certain goals are prime motivators. Knowing and remembering those goals can allow you to focus, prioritize and keep the fight going, because you’ll be tapping into your deeper motivations, your reason to get up and go every day, and micro-tasks will feel less frustrating,” she adds.

Stay present

All of us have certain triggers that set us on the worry spiral—an impending job loss, negative feedback, or a health scare. “Once that cycle begins,” says Ram, “We catastrophize it, imagining disasters about the future that may not be real at all.”Break the cycle by focusing only on the present, on what actions can be taken here and now to manage an existing problem. Living mindfully, which means staying rooted in the present moment and doing as well as you can, is key. “Solutions are unlikely to emerge from overthinking about what could happen three or six months down the road—there are too many unpredictable events that might happen. What you can control is the now,” Ram adds.

Seek joy

“Identify and list out the things that make you happy. Do one thing from that list every day within, of course, the limits of what is possible. Consciously thinking about the things that bring you joy will allow you to notice the positives amidst the doom and gloom, be grateful for things you may have taken for granted and ensure you appreciate what you have,” Dubey says.


Get it all out

Telling a friend or family member what’s worrying you, or even saying it aloud to yourself or writing it down, can allow you to gain some perspective. “It’s a little easier to challenge worries when your worries are on paper or said out loud rather than floating around in your head,” says Buhr. Adds Ram, “Even if a trusted confidant cannot offer solutions, there is still great value in simply sharing what we feel, because in the process, we are also, in a way, talking to ourselves.” Speaking out the worry or expressing the fear out loud allows you to perceive it objectively. Some of them may turn out to be less severe than it seemed in your mind.

Shift perspective

Worries can compound to the point where one feels isolated and alone, adrift in a sea of problems. “Never forget that anything you may be feeling—anger, resignation, disappointment—are all very natural reactions to a complex and unpredictable world. This not only means that there is nothing wrong with you, but also that you are not alone, others feel the same way too,” says Dubey. “Ask yourself, ‘Five years from now, how important will this be? What impact will it have?’ In the larger scheme of time, some things are not worth worrying about,” she explains.


How Mindfulness Meditation Can Be An Antidote To Worry

Emily Thring, founder of the Quiet Company, a meditation studio in Toronto, Canada, that seeks to foster mindful experiences, shares the basics of mindfulness and how it can counter worry.

What is mindfulness meditation?

It’s focusing on your breathing in the present moment and connecting with how you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing, without judgment.

How does it target worry?

Worrying is about future scenarios. Mindfulness grounds you in the moment, reducing that anxiety of what’s to come so you can be more present with what’s happening now.


How should one get started?

Meditation isn’t something you do once and then feel a tremendous change in your life. It takes consistency and commitment. Begin with a few minutes at the same time every day, and joining a local group can help you face potential challenges as you practise more frequently.

Exhale your worries

When you’re overwhelmed, Thring recommends a simple breathing exercise called box breathing to slow down your mind and help you feel more in control. Here’s how: Inhale for a count of four, hold for four seconds, then exhale for four and hold again for four seconds before starting again. Repeat this for two minutes, working your way up to longer spans of time as needed.

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