Illustration: Wenting Li
Here’s how to quiet that nagging voice in your head, end the “what ifs” and live peacefully in the present.
Recently, I spoke on a panel about the most pressing issues in the field of mental health. One of the attendees, a physician from the Far North, asked me if there was a single disorder that I’ve seen in my office more than any other. The answer was yes—anxiety. The doctor wasn’t surprised; she, too, has seen plenty of anxiety in her remote practice.
While the difficulties facing so many in her patient population—unemployment, addiction, trauma, discrimination—are dire and, one might argue, anxiety-provoking, the same can’t always be said for my patients. But the circumstances don’t matter—anxiety can strike anyway.
As long as you have an imagination, you can suffer from anxiety, or what I like to call the “what if” disease. It compels us to imagine bad outcomes: What if I lose my job? What if I’m alone forever? What if they laugh at me? When we get really good at this, we can “what if” ourselves all the way to the worst-case scenario: from blowing a presentation to getting fired, failing to find a new job, losing your house and, ultimately, becoming a bag lady.
A friend of mine refers to “what ifs” as the problems we don’t have yet—and she’s right. Anxiety is a time traveller’s disease; it rehashes the past and forecasts a future that we can’t see or predict. When you break it down, though, anxiety is just a feeling, one fuelled by racing thoughts. A surefire antidote is to rein in a runaway mind and to stay present in the here and now, where those misfortunes don’t yet exist. That’s easier said than done, especially when you’ve spent a lifetime looking for landmines (to the exclusion of the daisies, no less), but it is possible. A good place to start is with mindfulness, which goes beyond staying present; it asks us to be cognizant of where our mind goes. Getting some clarity around the source of your anxious thinking is part of the practice.
Most people have a favourite flavour of “what if?” For the women in my practice, it tends to relate to how we perform (professionally, socially, sexually) and how others appraise us. Put another way, anxiety asks, “How did I do?” and “Do they like me?” Our minds spin from past performances to future ones, from how we’ve pleased people in the past to how we’re going to make them happy in the future. This ride can leave us bruised, nauseated and fatigued.
There’s only one thing to do: Get off the ride. Take a deep breath and bring your focus back to the present, where, very likely, the sun is still shining.