Taming the ‘What Ifs'
Reader's Digest India|July 2020
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

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, coauthor 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).

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.

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July 2020