Many of the college students and adults with ADHD that we coach have high anxiety. In fact, they frequently have a formal diagnosis of generalized anxiety, social anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorder. Mental health experts have determined that 50% of adults with ADHD and up to 30% of children with ADHD also have an anxiety disorder.
Even when our clients do not have a formal diagnosis of anxiety, they often describe how fear and worrying affects their performance at school, work, and elsewhere. Over the years, we’ve noticed a common behavior among these clients: they do a lot of “what if” thinking!
What If Thinking Feeds Anxiety
Sometimes what-if thinking can serve you well. If you are driving to a certain destination on a very busy highway, it can be helpful to think about a back-up route if traffic is slow. For example, you might ask yourself, “What if Interstate 95 slows to a crawl? Can I get off at the next exit and chose an alternate route?” Having a contingency option can reduce anxiety on road trips!
On the other hand, what-if thinking can cause procrastination or even paralysis! Sometimes our clients avoid timely decisions by focusing on the negative things that might happen if they start moving forward.
You’re worried about what-ifs. Well, what if you stopped worrying?
Shannon Celibi (from Driving Off Bridges)
Anxiety Becomes a Self-Fulfilling Prophesy
As coaches, we often see that what-if thinking creates a self-fulfilling prophesy.
- College students who dwell on a question such as “What if I study the wrong material and get a poor grade on my math test?” delay starting to study. When they finally start studying, they realize there’s too much material to learn at the last minute. Then they make a low grade on the exam, their confidence erodes, and they often repeat the pattern for the next test.
- Our clients who have social anxiety often fear rejection. They ask, “What if this person doesn’t like me?” This leads them down a path that completely eliminates the chance of rejection. They decide to avoid personal interaction and just isolate. Of course, their social anxiety then gets worse because they are not learning how to interact socially.
Increase Awareness to Reduce Anxiety
Increased awareness of what-if thinking is a good first step in reducing anxiety. Recognize when your what-if thoughts are actually just second-guessing prior decisions. For example, learn to catch yourself when you find yourself asking, “What if I had married someone else, chosen another job, or selected a different major in college?”
Second-guessing is rarely a productive exercise! When you “let go” and accept past decisions, you tend to be more comfortable in the present.
Mindfulness strategies are extremely helpful in reducing what-if thinking. One of the most popular and accessible mindfulness techniques is meditation. Many meditation apps are now available for those who want to shift their thinking when anxiety comes calling. Our clients who use apps like Calm; Stop, Breathe & Think; and Headspace consistently report a feeling of enhanced well-being and reduced anxiety.
Just taking time to focus on the breath can be quite helpful when you start feeling anxious. It’s a contingency plan that addresses the stress created by your what-if thoughts!
Substitute Other Thoughts for What-If Thinking
Assuming that you are aware when your what-if thoughts are self-defeating, one strategy is to substitute alternative thoughts.
How can you “steer” your thoughts in a more optimistic and positive direction? Let’s assume that you have social anxiety and are reluctant to initiate a conversation with another person due to the “What if I am rejected?” frame of mind. Alternative thoughts could include:
- “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I strike up a conversation? What have I got to lose?”
- “How can I minimize the chance that another person will reject me?
- “What questions can I ask that would focus on the other person instead of myself?”
- “How can I avoid taking it personally if the other person shows little interest in me?”
- “Even though I fear rejection, is isolation any better for my sense of well-being?”
Are You A What-If Thinker?
If you have concluded that what-if thinking is one of your own habits, it can help to know your personality type. Taking an assessment like the WorkPlace Big Five (WPBF) or the Myers Briggs Personality Inventory (MBTI) increases your awareness of default behaviors. With increased awareness, you are more likely to catch it when you do what-if thinking!
Working with a professionally trained coach can also help you accelerate your transition to a new, more relaxed way of managing anxiety and daily stress.
To learn how personality assessments and coaching can help you with what-if thinking, please contact us today for a free 30-minute consultation.