Desensitization: The ‘What If’ Homework

Over the last year and a half, my anxiety has gone through some interesting evolutions. At the beginning of the pandemic, when I was also one month postpartum, it was at an all time high. In recent months, it has been at an all time low. In fact a few weeks ago I kept feeling different and couldn’t figure out why. For a few days I kept trying to put my finger on what was going on. It suddenly came to me as I was sitting at my desk one day and I laughed out loud to my empty office and said, “I don’t think I have any anxiety right now?!” Yep, that was it. I think it may have been one of the first times in my life that I really didn’t feel or sense any sort of underlying, chronic anxiety. It was weird. And good. And then because this is who I am as a person, I suddenly started to worry that this feeling would go away. You guessed it, folks, I started building anxiety over the fact that I wasn’t having anxiety. I always knew I was gifted and talented.

Anyway, things have been pretty smooth sailing. I’m doing a lot to create this homeostasis, it’s not just luck that got me here. So it’s both reassuring and rewarding to know that the things I’m doing are working (writing more, having a daily practice, mindfulness, etc.).

So this morning I was a little surprised when I woke up to a case of the ‘what ifs’.

The ‘what ifs’ were specifically related to a health issue, but as we all know, the ‘what if’ game is contagious. And like any contagion, it’s important to catch it early on and try to put a stop to it. Once it starts in one area, it’s very easy for the game to generalize. To go from a mild “What if I get a cold and don’t feel well?” to a disastrous “What if gravity disappears and the earth is flung out of orbit and swallowed by a black hole?”

In my morning pages today, I addressed the ‘what ifs’ that were starting to swell in my head. And as usual, my morning pages provided me with the answers, help, and insight I needed to help stop them. I have never had this thought before, but during my writing I had the idea to give myself a ‘what if’ homework assignment. I decided that after my morning pages I would fill an entire notebook page with what if scenarios. I wanted to keep them positive. The goal here was:

  1. Exhaust my brain from thinking of what if scenarios in hopes that it would not want to default to that the rest of the day
  2. Desensitize myself — the more what if scenarios I think of the more silly and non-realistic/non-threatening they would seem
  3. Through dreaming up so many what if scenarios, realize and internalize that no one scenario is more likely than another

It worked. After I finished filling my notebook page, which took quite a bit of effort actually, I felt differently about my what ifs. It seemed to cut off the quickly growing tentacles of my actual ‘what if’ worry from this morning.

The last ‘what if’ I wrote after filling my entire notebook page of back-to-back what ifs was, “What if I suddenly stopped giving weight to the what ifs in my brain and I realized that they are like ideas that a well-meaning coworker has, and I can simply choose to accept them or say thanks but no thanks?” I do this in my professional role every day– listen to ideas and input from people. I hear them without attachment and judgment, and then decide if I want to move forward with their ideas or not. I decide how much weight to give them. I don’t hear my coworker’s ideas and input and immediately think “Oh wow, this is a fact and I have to now live by their words.” So, my brilliant and wonderful brain, today you are my coworker. And I truly appreciate your ideas and thoughts, and I’ll choose to hang onto the ones that bring me more peace, joy, and motivation.

3 thoughts on “Desensitization: The ‘What If’ Homework

  1. Glad to hear you are doing well! And yes that’s a very real thing, to worry about not worrying haha, and worrying how long it will last, I do it myself. I can’t really tell you what to do about that because I think it’s just in our nature and inevitable. Just appreciate and try not to the times for granted.

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