How to deal with “What ifs”
By: C. Schulter
It is a commune part of life to have “what if” moments. We humans need those moments to help us make decisions, get motivation, or make better choices. However, these moments might become a problem when our minds get stuck in the “what if cycle”. Psychologists and other social scientists called this phenomenon “counterfactual thinking” and there are many ways to break them down. They could be upward, “If I had studied more, I would have gotten a better grade”, or they could be downward, “What if I had not studied at all? I would have done even worse!”. They could be about yourself: “Why didn’t I focus on that class? I could have answered that question on my test”, or they could be about someone else, “If they chose that student for this prize, he did way better than me in that subject”. They could also be an omission, which means you wish you had done something, or, they could be a commission, which means you wished you had not done something. All counterfactual thoughts have one thing in common: playing an event over and over in your mind while considering different scenarios based on your actions.
The problem with the “what if” cycle, is that it overwhelms our minds, in a study done by the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin it was discovered that thinking frequently of past events and undoing them, or, thinking frequently of future events and trying to predict them, is directly related to an increase in distress, anguish and anxiety levels. People that constantly overthink the possible outcomes of past and future events tend to get frustrated more often, because most times, the inability of changing the past or predicting the future cause them to freeze in front of new challenges, which leads to aggravation.
But how to escape this vicious cycle? As mentioned in the beginning, “what if” are an essential part of life because when we learn from past situations, we may make better choices in our future. “What ifs” are supposed to generate apprenticeship. Even if things went wrong, or even if the future is uncertain, calm down and allow yourself to see beyond the box you are in. Learn to say, “next time I’ll” and make the changes needed in order for you to succeed. “What ifs” are not supposed to be cages, so don’t imprison your mind in events that did not happen, learn to process what is real, what is happening, and adapt to it.
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