Dangers of “What if” Thinking

“What if” thinking is one of the most harmful trains of thought of all negative thinking. Everyone is guilty of a negative thought here and there but “what if” thinking, when done consistently, can be very harmful. This type of thinking very often takes something very small, and many times even nonexistent, and turns it into something dreadful. “What if” thinking is going straight to the worst case scenario in everything. This leads to unnecessary anxiety and panic.

“What if” thinking makes the world a very threatening place to live in. Almost anything can be turned into a “what if” situation. This can happen every time you or a loved one walks out the door, every time you hear a siren, or even if the phone rings. Thinking the worst only leads to extreme anxiety and that is no way to live. This way of life is especially dangerous for someone that is trying to recover from substance abuse.

It becomes easier to manage this type of thinking when efforts are made to turn it into more realistic thinking. Listen to yourself and how you sound when you are displaying this kind of thinking and many times if you force yourself to self talk you can turn that negativity around. You can learn a lot by paying attention to yourself.

Another thing that works quite well is to recall what you were thinking about before the anxiety came on. Usually it will be some sort of catastrophic thinking that you could have tried to shrink before it got out of control. Some people will find that therapy really helps with this when the other methods do not seem to work well.

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  • Stinking thinking is what we call it in sales.  We are told to not make what if montsers in our heads, look at the situation as it is and deal with it.  It may not be what we want but it is not as bad as the what if monsters made it out to be. Article above is very good.
  • I am actually guilty of always having "what if" thoughts because I have too many failures and resentments in life. I have also made few bad decisions/choices, that's why I always imagine what would it be like if I didn't do this thing or that stuff. I agree. It's pretty harmful as you are just always zoning out and daydreaming about things that you know would never happen.
  • I agree this is very harmful thinking and I was raised thinking like this all the time. My personal situation got quite unpredictable after marriage and kind of giving over my life to my husband - not in a negative way but I have had to give up a lot over and over moving around the country for my husband's career. This has made my "what if" thinking very real, as I have experienced many unpredictable twists and turns in my life that I don't know how much resiliency I am supposed to have. But anyways, recently I have a had a change of attitude where I really, truly, just give up, I give over my life to God and let him take me where he wants. I've stopped trying to plan and control because I have had the carpet ripped from under me countless times in my life, at this point what I have and where I am going is clearly up to God, so I finally see it is pointless to worry to much, because whatever is meant to happen will, regardless what you worry about or not beforehand. 
  • Most of us are guilty of this kind of thinking. As human beings, we are emotionally vulnerable to this state of thinking especially where our loved ones are involved. As difficult as it may seem, we need to look at the bright side of life and be optimistic that all we be well.
  • chinne01  oh my goodness i needed to read that!! i felt myself relaxing as i read it...as i've been feeling a bit anxious about something lately...now i realize all i'm doing is asking "what if"? in a negative way...but instead i'm just going to relax and know that whatever happens is alright...all is well and all will be well...and if i do want to ask "what if"?, i am going to choose to think of it with a positive outcome :)
  • The "what if" mentality connotes regret, mistrust and insecurity. A person has to not only see the good in others, but he also needs to see the goodness within him to be able to think beyond the what ifs. That's why people need all the support they can get from everyone who matters. Only then will they be able to fully accept the past, embrace themselves and stop trying to change what can never be undone.
  • Great advice here. "What ifs" can really interfere with peoples lives and it's important to get to the root of these anxieties. It's a learned behaviour so therapy could be excellent for reprogramming your mind and learning not to worry. 
  • My father is one of the "What if" thinkers. He talks to us about how he spends a lot of his time when alone thinking about everything and assuming the worst and how it cause him great anxiety. Even he admits that is one of his worst habits.
  • "What if" thinking can turn into fully blown paranoia where a person is convinced that a certain thing is true, and in the end it will become true. It will become a reality. I have witnessed this with my own eyes when a friend of mine became convinced that someone was following him. He began seeing spies and enemies everywhere. And they were all after him. 
    In the end it turned out that my friend had done something illegal and his consciousness was the real spy. It all ended up in a nervous breakdown. The offense was only minor but in his mind it was monumental. 
  • Ah, I’m prone to what-if thoughts during my high-anxiety periods. I’ve generally gotten much better about stopping those trains of thought, but they still crop up sometimes and it really is detrimental to the overall well-being. Self-talk does help, and for me, keeping a journal is extremely beneficial. There’s something about seeing it all in writing that makes me realize I’m just thinking myself into a corner and I need to stop.
  • I agree, I am a person who is guilty of the "What if" question, since I struggle from OCD and very severe anxiety disorders, I tend to always think "what if" a lot. I would love to discipline my own mind and have control over it. Sometimes I do control it but many times I don't, however, I think there is hope for all of us, I surely don't question if I can be recovered from it. Thank you for sharing this chinne01.
  • The what ifs are horrible!! I will dwell for hours on the what it's. once they start they only get worse.
  • The what ifs are horrible!! I will dwell for hours on the what it's. once they start they only get worse.
  • Thanks Chinne01 for this post. You're right about "what if" thinking is dangerous. I personally struggle with it often and it can affect your behaviour and the way you react in situations. From my own experience I can definitely say it is a hard battle, and something you really have to try to manage as if it gets in control of you then it can be very destructive for you.
  • I have suffered with anxiety since childhood and I am completely guilty of the "what if" thinking. I always use the "what if" thinking as a way to get out of situations that I feel may make me panic. For instance, if hubby wants to go somewhere that I feel anxious about, like the movies or a crowded restaurant..I usually say to him.."What if I have an anxiety attack, then what will we do?". He usually fires back with "But what if you don't?". 

    Questioning ourselves is pretty common but for anxiety sufferers I think we question ourselves far too much. How do we break this cycle? I've been trying for years. I've had people tell me to stop using the "what ifs" negatively and instead say something along the lines of "What if I never panic again, how would I feel?", or "What if the sun shines today when it is supposed to rain?". 

    It's just very hard to turn the negatives into positives but it certainly will help if we can do that. Thank  you for this post. 
  • The "what-ifs" are I think what has made me so paranoid about everything now.
  • To the OP, what would you consider for ridding the mind of such excessive "what-ifs"? Do I need a different mindset? I mean, I use to be an optimistic person when I was younger, but after high school everything just caused me to plummet into a state of anxiety and paranoia.
  • I'm guilty of this ''what if'' behavior, actually the what ifs were the source of most of my OCD crisis.  Back when I had serious anxiety attacks fueled by my OCD, I remember how most of the time it all started after a minor incident that a normal person would just ignore, I'd start with all what ifs scenarios. 

    My main phobia back then was fear to getting HIV by being expose to contaminated fluids or infected needles/surfaces.  I know, it sounds crazy, and believe me I never talk about this openly with anyone, because I know it does sound crazy. But this is part of OCD.  I'm now under control,  I think it's because whenever  a ''what if'' thought comes into my mind I just brush it off as soon as it pops up.

    Took me years to master that technique. Well worth it, because it has helped me to nearly cure my OCD, or at least keep it under control.
  • I'm definitely a person who is constantly thinking of the what-if's instead of just going with the flow and letting things happen. I'm constantly terrified that something bad is going to happpen and I always think of every possibility. Like how I have a job interview in the morning, and right now I don't have a ride home, just a ride there. So right now my anxiety is through the roof thinking of bad outcomes and possibilities concerning both the interview, before the interview since I'm going to be getting there like two hours early, and then of course I'm worried about how I'll be getting back. Just full of worry.
  • My mom used to always stifle what if thinking from us as children with the phrase,
      "If your grandmother had wheels she would be a Volkswagen, so who cares?"
    I never really understood the comment but it shut down the what if questions pretty fast. The ability to recognize the futility in worring about things out of our control is something we need in these situations. 
  • This is so true. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and am unable to go to sleep again because of overthinking. I get really scared every time my mind goes off with the "what ifs". I feel like there's no future ahead of me and that I'm trapped in this situation forever. It's the most awful feeling ever. Every day I distract myself by being so busy doing things I don't necessarily have to do but still do just so I can take my mind off the What-ifs.
  • Yes, I would like to think that the "what if" thinking could increase complacency and make us take things rather easily. Most of the times, we exude false confidence when we say what if. Just putting up a brave front while shivering from within. People do it out of egotistic behavior or due to scant regard for normal regulations and rules. Yes, I agree it's a dangerous thinking which can put you in a hole.
  • I do a lot of 'what if' thinking back when I was younger. Thankfully, I had a boss who crushed that tendency of mine. He gave me what he called his 'fact vs. fiction' lesson. He taught me that should I start thinking about 'what if' scenarios, I should immediately consider if what I was thinking was fact or was it just fiction. If it isn't a fact, then I should just ditch the thought. This lesson has truly helped me.
  • What if is probably the worst of my issues with anxiety. I tend to make up the worst scenarios in my head which lead to absolutely NOTHING good. However, I've recently started CBT and slowly have been able to stop myself in my tracks whenever I'm about to go down that road. It takes time and it's pretty difficult for me, but I know that in the end if I can control my what ifs I'll be able to stop hurting myself with made-up scenarios that only bring me grief. 

    I was once advised to take the what ifs to the ultimate most horrible ending. While it might work for some to observe the futility of the whole process, it definitely wasn't for me, it just made the paranoia worse. 
  • @tryingtocope Taking the what-ifs to their logical extreme can indeed be a slippery slope. I did find that it worked for me, but the key was to make a plan for if my absolute worst-case scenario should come to pass, which in turn made me realize how unlikely it was. This may work for some, but it may not for others.
  • That stinkin' thinkin' is a vicious cycle and is almost always what ends up throwing me into my most insane attacks. My doctor suggested it's a form of OCD. I got to thinking about that. I totally see how it could be! 
    Right now we are planning a vacation and I'm trying so hard to let every scary thought that comes into my mind just flip into an excited thought and get the "what-ifs" to turn into positive ones. What if I have fun? What if we are safe in our travels? What if it's an incredible bonding time for our family? It's working pretty well so far.
  • tryingtocope  Are you sure you don't suffer from OCD?  You'd be so suprised to hear how many people have OCD and have no idea their symptoms are caused by it.  I have OCD and for a while my mind tortured me with what if scenarios, which caused me so much stress and anxiety.  I didn't know what was wrong with me, but when I was 23 I was finally diagnosed by mental health professional.  I didnt take meds for that (don't need them anymore), but it does help to know what you have.
  • I hate when people say this, "the what-if or I-would do not exist"

    Of course they exist... what if I were in a different place today, what if I would never drink in the way I drank.

    However, certainly those patterns of thought lead no nowhere but to remorse and anxiety, but not due to this we have to deny the tendency to think and say what-if, or I-would is sometimes inevitable.

  • I think we are all guilty of the "what if" thinking. I sure have had my share of it. I made a lot of mistakes in life. Sometimes it really gets me down, but I try to keep a handle on the negative thinking. Can't put the tooth paste back in the tube. I can only move forward, and try to right some of the wrong.
  • @JohnB, my Dad had a similar saying too. He'd say "Yes, and if your aunt had balls, she'd be your uncle"! 
  • @missbishi That is freaking hilarious! I almost fell out of my chair laughing when I read your response. I love it.
  • @JohnB, glad to be of service :)
  • Honestly this is something I seriously struggle with! My therapist always talks to me about the "what if" thinking I normally tend to do. It's big with my OCD, and can be so hurtful to me more than it does help. (I get anxious of being a bad person, I think being anxious will help me realize what I'm doing wrong, but it doesn't and I go "What if I am a bad person?"....What if thinking seriously sucks, and I hope I can find a way to get through it, and I hope who ever gets this way can as well!
  • I am currently only 18 and in my last year of college, about to venture off to university, fair to say i am terrified. I've been dealing with anxiety, OCD, depression and agoraphobia since i was 12, and now i'm starting the adult world, 'what if's' have been a constant in my daily vocabulary. Its easy to say i am pretty terrified of the impending future and what it holds.
  • @cheburashka hey there. what if thinking does suck.

    i play the "opposite game" sometimes....like if i'm thinking something, i'll think the opposite. i'll make myself..(cuz if i'm feeling anxiety, i'm usually irrational) helps me some!
  • "What ifs" are the worst thing for anyone with anxiety issues. That type of thinking is what makes us who we are and causes the largest majority of our problems.

    I've found that it really helps to turn those negative "what ifs" around and think about the positive outcomes as well. If something negative can possibly come of a situation, then something positive is possible as well.
  • story of my life. I feel like Im living in the past everyday. Just dwelling on every bad decision i ever made.
  • Wow, I feel like you just read my mind. Lately, every little thing that happens it's scary for me, when I'm taking the bus, riding my bike, hanging out with friends o just can't help to think about the worst scenario, and it's really stressing for me, I will try to be a little bit more realistic.
  • Hm, I'd like to say this sort thinking didn't work for me, but it did help me. I used to be really rash, making decisions as I made them up and almost never they ended up doing any good. Only when I started actually hurting people with my poor choices have I managed to slow down and take each situation as it comes and think carefully through it. However, larger scale "what if"s have never quite hit me yet. 
  • What if, the moment you catch yourself thinking along the lines of endless possibilities, you just stop. Mentally tell yourself to just stop. If it's possible to think of possibilities, it is also likely possible to NOT proceed with that line of thought?
    If one is already aware that entertaining 'what ifs' is detrimental to one's well-being, why persist? What does one get out of entertaining the what ifs in life.
    It might be a difficult task to do, but one should just start going the opposite direction of not fueling the fire. The what ifs is already stressing you out or causing you to think that everything's going for the worse, so why not stop flaming the fire? However difficult, just resist the urge and focus your mind to what's real and can be controllable.
  • @abelinc, I wish it was possible, but for many people, it's NOT - at least not without medication and the like. Often neurotypical people say stuff like "OMG can't you just, like, stop being depressed???", not realizing how harmful their words are. 
    I'm sorry if I sound angry, but my parents are constantly saying this to me, and it really upsets me. It's not like I enjoy being terrified of everything. 
  • @Elfprincess - no worries! It's fine. I don't know what you're going through and whatever it is might be hard for you. I didn't mean to upset you. I may have sounded like your parents in my previous post.
    In any case, we all don't know what's going on in everyone's head. I'm only sharing what comes to my head about 'what if' thinking. Obviously, as you clearly pointed out - there's more to it than just being a mental control thing. I hear you that it simply doesn't come with a switch button.
    That is why, it is very important to share what it is that we experience in order for others to have that understanding of whatever it is one is experiencing. Awareness is very essential.
    If one is aware that somethings not quite right, and is unable to fix it herself, then seeking the help of professionals might help. To the non-sufferer, it could be difficult to 'get' also, especially if the 'sufferer' won't talk about what's going on. I recognize that there is a lot to go through for both sufferer and non-sufferer to gain understanding. It may also take a while to sort through things, but the important thing is to go through the whole messy process of talking things out and figuring what will work.
  • @abelinc I see where you're coming from! I think that writing on a forum like this one can be very helpful.
    If only non-sufferers had an open mind regarding suffering person's experiences... I found out that you can exaplain yourself as good as possible, and yet sometimes won't believe that you truly feel that bad and it's not just being angsty or whiny, or doing stupid things just for the sake of it. Do you know how to adjust family's attitude?
  • Whatever you hold in your mind in your conscious thought is whatever you will move towards in life. Think negative thoughts and you will attract negative things. Think positive thoughts and you will attract positive things. Negative thoughts create negative emotions and positive thoughts create positive emotions. Positivity will always outweigh negativity.
  • @Elfprincess - I have no idea how to adjust family's attitude. all i know that in any problem, both sufferer and non-sufferer have to have an open mind. foremost, the two are coming from different perspectives. that alone is an issue as the two people involved are coming from different places. that's why it takes a lot of effort to meet in the middle. it will take more than love to be able to see each others' points. thus, it is very important for both to have a lot of patience, and to afford much time with each other in order to gain understanding of what each is going through. the key is to not give up.
  • I'll tell you what worked for me .....I would have lots of thoughts about drugs when I quit, either drugs or people assoc. with it....anyway, when the thought came in, I would immediatly change the channel in my mind. Slowly, onto another thought...no drama, no big deal, just a thought...as for the what if's, I learned early on as hard as I used, I couldn't afford to do that kinda thinking, I accepted that thought 
  • I'm guilty of perpetually following the "What if" loop. The hardest part of managing it is trying to get past the idea that it is somehow a necessity for the integrity of your everyday life, and by playing out these scenarios and walking over them like a minefield, you'll somehow succeed without inconveniencing others or making mistakes. It feels almost unrealistic to think otherwise, and those are some of the issues I've been facing in that regard.
  • I do agree that "what if" thinking is not helpful for someone who has anxiety. It seems to be natural for someone with anxiety to think this way and it's not entirely their fault, in my opinion. The anxiety can be so consuming that the mind almost naturally falls for this way of thinking.
    When you're in this trap and if you cannot stop yourself (and it's not really your fault, so never blame yourself or feel guilty), then you will require intervention to change your way of thinking. It won't be easy, but then again, it never is. However, it can be done. With the right doctor or therapist and lots of practice, you can turn things around. Just like most things, it requires practice to break the cycle. You've taken to this way of thinking for so long, so now you need to undo these negative thoughts by constantly applying techniques the therapist teaches you. Reading up on relevant material will also help. The more knowledge you're equipped with, the better you'll be in stopping this vicious cycle. Now, you'll practice your new methods until IT becomes second nature. 
  • After reading just one post stating about so to speak; how we build mountains out if moll hills. And we do or at least I do. It starts with a simple worry, then I begin to say what if this or that, then the next thing I know I have blown the thought way out of proportion, And begin to think and act as if this thought is really could happen and I need to do something just in case. Yet I begin to realize it's overthinking the situation. I think it's due to previous instances where something bad did happen...kinda like a PTSD thinking, for lack of a better term.
  • What if is harmful and bad for someone prone to anxiety. You can't change the pastno matter how much you dwell on it, so you should work out to "forget" to think about possibilities you won't have the power to change.
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