Fantasizing about the “what ifs” can be so fun. And it certainly takes the edge off the craziness of the world sometimes. What if COVID hadn’t happened? (I’d have been on a lot more airplanes, for sure). What if I won a million dollars? (No more student loans and an indoor putting green for me!). 

While daydreaming about fun and exciting things can help us get out of the mundane, routine nature of life, catching a case of the “what ifs” can also be problematic. 

What if I lose my job? What if I get into a car crash on the way to work? What if I had gone to a different college? What if my retirement savings isn’t enough when I retire? It’s hard not to worry about the future or to sometimes wonder what life would be like if something had gone differently. But for many of us, the worrying can spiral and eat us alive. 

So when you notice you’ve caught a case of the “what ifs” (like the mental health yips if you think about it!), here’s some easy strategies to implement. 

  1. Engage in a skill called grounding. Find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. This pulls you out of that spiral thought pattern and into your present in-body experiences. 
  2. Focus on your breathing. Getting our breathing slowed to 6 breaths per minute (an in breath of 5 and an out breath of 5) slows down our thinking and gives us access to the pre-frontal cortex -which is the part of the brain that reengages our logical thinking. 
  3. Examine the “what if” idea and allow yourself to consider what “evidence” you have for or against that thought. If you are stressed about your job – what evidence do you have that you will lose your job? What evidence do you have that you will not lose your job? Allow your logical brain to kick in over your emotional brain and keep the probability in mind. 
  4. Find a healthy distraction. When the unhelpful thoughts pop up, find a way to distract yourself and not give it more attention. Grab a putter and turn on your metronome and just swing that putter around a bit. Throw on a 5 minute online standup comedy special. Come back to S&H and dive deep in the archives!

There’s no all or none to this. We live in the grey. And this type of thinking is the grey. It’s good to fantasize sometimes. It’s good to think about fun what ifs for sure. But it’s easy for us to move to less helpful what if thinking. And the sooner we build the skills to nip that in the bud, the less we will have to deal with that stressor!

Dr. Chelsi Day

Dr. Day is a licensed clinical psychologist. She is an Ohio native who completed her Bachelor's degrees in Psychology and Health and Sport Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio while competing on the Varsity Swimming and Diving team as a diver. She then went on to earn a Master's degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology followed by a Master's degree and later a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University New England in Keene, NH.