How to Stop Fearing the Worst and Worrying About “What Ifs”

“Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.” ~Charles H. Spurgeon

There’s nothing like a real health emergency for putting insignificant worries into perspective.

By the time I was pregnant the second time, I had left my struggles with anxiety largely behind me. Having been to therapy years earlier to find coping mechanisms for managing my ever-present phobias, I was in a fairly good place when I learned I’d been given a second chance at having a child.

But worry is as much as part of me as breathing, and having lost a pregnancy the year prior, I spent the first eight to ten weeks of the second one constantly preoccupied with the what-ifs that tend to haunt anxiety sufferers, even reformed ones like me.

One day in week forty, after many hours of irregular contractions, something told me I needed to check myself into the hospital. It was a different feeling than the one I’d experienced during my panic attacks, which was always induced by the fight or flight response.

It was calmer, and felt more peaceful. So I listened.

Once I got there, the midwives discovered my blood pressure was 200/110 (stroke territory). I was in the middle of a hypertensive crisis caused by undiagnosed pre-eclampsia—a dangerous condition that affects a small percentage of pregnant women worldwide.

They admitted me immediately, and a scene from an emergency room TV drama ensued. Machines screamed. Nurses ran. Doctors were paged. IV’s were administered.

Between waves of doctors and nurses I learned that if they didn’t succeed in getting my blood pressure down soon, I could seize, stroke out, or suffer irreparable damage to my liver and kidneys.

To further complicate matters, my son was starting to show some signs of distress, and I got the sense from the folks in scrubs around my bedside that they weren’t quite sure how to manage it.

Through it all I remained surprisingly calm, somehow at peace with what was happening around me, despite the many hours I’d spent worrying about just such an event in the past. I felt saddened by the possibility of dying—or worse, losing my son—but not panicked or afraid.

When my son was born, healthy and strong by emergency C-section, then I truly understood the futility of my past concern.

Having survived the incident unscathed, I spent the next six years of my life working on building the skills that keep the time-suck that is anxiety from ever coming back.

If I had to tell my past self something I’ve learned to prevent unnecessary suffering, it would go something like this:

Don’t argue with a fool. (People may not know the difference).

One piece of advice for anxiety sufferers I read and hear often is to take a deep breath and reassure yourself that you are safe, your anxiety can’t hurt you, and your fears are all in your head.

Anxiety is irrational, and no amount of rational thinking will banish unnecessary worry or anxious thoughts. In fact, trying to fight irrational thinking with logic can be counterproductive and lead you down the rabbit hole of self-doubt.

Instead, respond to irrational fears by accepting that there is a (however remote) possibility that what you fear may come to pass, but also trust that if it does, you will have the tools to manage it.

Don’t ask others to argue with a fool.

Mental illness is tough, and having support from friends and family is key to making it through unscathed to the other side.

Asking your friends and families to tell you why your fears are unfounded and your worries are irrational is not asking for help—it’s asking for validation.

Many of us suffering through anxiety believe that if we can’t trust our own logical arguments for why everything is going to be okay, maybe someone else can make it okay for us.

This kind of behavior often serves to undermine your self-confidence and create codependent tendencies, since you’re relying (most often very ineffectively) on others to manage your anxiety for you.

Find a more productive focal point.

A few years before my pregnancy, when I was first treated for anxiety, my therapist taught me a trick I carry with me to this day.

Anxiety needs a focal point, but with a little sleight of hand you can find one that is less disturbing than your worry.

When embarking on a trip to Cabo for my friend’s wedding (I’m afraid to fly), she told me to wear the most uncomfortable outfit I could tolerate for the flight. I chose a tight, itchy strapless corset, and spent a good nine hours trying to fight the garment’s pinch.

Guess what I wasn’t doing, though, while cursing my existence? Worrying about plane crashes.

Over time, I’ve found many other tools to help me stay present and banish unnecessary concerns. If I have a legitimate worry, I take action to mitigate risks and try to move on with my life.

If there’s nothing I can do, I occupy my mind with something else. I practice yoga. I wear itchy underwear. Most of all I trust. I trust that I can deal with any unexpected hurdles life might throw my way.

And if for some reason I encounter one I can’t manage, it simply was meant to be, whether it’s what I want for my life or not.

And then I move on and enjoy the moment. Or at least I try, anyway.

About Elisa Vannini

Elisa Vannini is an aspiring writer and a self-proclaimed Average Yogini. She hopes to help other anxiety sufferers embrace and manage their anxiety by staying active, developing new coping skills and changing the mental frameworks that exacerbate their condition.

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