How to Cope When a ‘What If…’ Actually Happens

Keep your emotional toolbox handy to keep yourself calm and clear when the unexpected comes to pass.

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Posted in , Jun 8, 2022

When something bad happens

My husband and I often joke about how grateful we are that we stress out about different things in life. If there’s car trouble, he goes into high-stress mode, but I keep my cool and easily step into problem-solving.

Coping with a here-and-now problem is my strength. My challenge is when the problem hasn’t happened yet, when it lives in the dreaded, amorphous space of “what if….”

Luckily for my marriage (and my life), my husband is skilled in helping me grow in this area, like helping me prepare for a trip without spiraling into over-packing because of “what ifs” that range from weather to a missed flight.

But in areas both banal (like a trip) and enormous (like, God forbid, a catastrophe or tragedy), sometimes the “what if” worry actually comes to pass. When it does, we—especially those of us who have overactive catastrophic imaginations—can feel unstable and deeply shaken. 

We all need skills at our disposal to find our feet and cope with as much grace and calm as possible when a dreaded thing happens. Here are three that help me:

1)  Call the Anxiety What It Is
Recently, our 11-year-old son contracted Covid-19. As it turned out, he also tested positive for strep throat, and the next week was a whirl of antibiotics (for the strep), too much screen time (for him) and getting used to masking in our own home (for all of us). 

A couple of days in, once the most acute symptoms had passed, I remarked to my husband that I palpably felt my stress level easing. I recognized that I was shifting from “what if…” into “here-and-now” problem-solving. Articulating aloud the anxiety of Covid-anticipation helped me feel calmer and freer going forward.

2)  Repeat After Me: “I Don’t Like This, But I Can Handle It.”
This phrase, which I learned years ago from a therapist, has been a star in the constellation of my anxiety management strategies. When a dreaded something happens, it’s very calming to give yourself permission to be upset, frustrated, afraid or angry—while also reassuring yourself that you can and will find a way through whatever the moment is challenging you to do. This is an example of an authentically positive outlook, because you are not denying what’s hard, you are encouraging yourself to handle the tough stuff.

3)  Think Accurately
A classic mistake that anxious minds make (particularly those of us who tend toward “what if” thinking) is to over-estimate the likelihood that an imagined challenge will actually happen. 

When something in that category does come to pass, that can tempt us toward feeling we were right to fret, confirming our suspicions—and somehow leaving us thinking that worrying will protect or even prepare us from the hard things in life. 

Especially just after you’ve faced a worried-about-but-unexpected challenge, take the time to look carefully at your thinking about other areas of concern in your life. Are you thinking accurately? Are you spending too much time “working” on solving a problem that may or may not happen? Even if the answer is yes, you will empower yourself simply by noticing your tendencies and encouraging your thoughts back toward accuracy and clarity.

Are you a “what if” thinker? How do you handle it when something you were worried about actually happens?

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