As a middle school and high school counselor, I often work with students who are experiencing anxiety. Sometimes the anxiety is mild and other times, it is more severe. Almost always, anxiety includes “What if?” thinking. “What if I fail this test?”, “What if my friends exclude me from the party?”, “What if I tell them I have a crush and they reject me?”. One of the strategies I often use with this kind of thinking is talking through each of the fears. Usually, one “what if” question leads to another, and then finally we get to the root of the fear.
I find this strategy to be effective for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is validating. Think about how many times you shared a fear with someone, only to be met with a well-meaning, “Don’t worry so much about it” or “It will be okay” or, one that I have said many times, “Everything happens for a reason”. Did you feel better when you heard this? Did you stop worrying? Probably not. Unfortunately, even though these sentiments are usually shared with the best of intentions, they often come across as dismissive instead and can give the message that it is not okay to share worries and fears.
Talking through the “what if”s is validating because you are creating space to listen. Using reflective listening, you are able to convey empathy. Another reason this strategy is effective is because it allows the person to think about the tools she or he already possesses and how she/he can use those tools to get through whatever they are fearing. For example, if someone shared their fear of being excluded, you could empathize by saying how painful it feels to be excluded. You could then ask if they remember a previous time they felt excluded. What happened then? How did they handle it? What would they have changed? You could then brainstorm ideas on what they could do should their worst fear come true, and they are excluded again. Check out this short video on empathy from Dr. Brene Brown:
I am sure there has been a lot of “what if” thinking happening these past few weeks. “What if I get sick?”, “What if someone I love gets sick?”, “What if we can’t go back to school?”, “What if we can’t get home?” and so on. These are all valid questions and need to be recognized. It is important that we all take a moment to pause and truly consider what is going on around us. The world is in a crisis unlike anything any of us has ever experienced. We have only read about such things in our history books. It is scary. There is a lot of uncertainty. To deny these feelings, or try to push them down and simply do our best to carry on with life as “normal”, is to simply invite the trauma to manifest in a different way. And this is a trauma- a global trauma.
Please do not get me wrong- I am not suggesting we wallow in these feelings and walk around in hopelessness and despair, nor am I suggesting we lock ourselves indoors for the next 6 months and consume heaps of news- I am simply saying we need to pause, breathe, and acknowledge this is really hard. We need to create space with each other where we can grieve. And grief doesn’t have to mean death- any kind of a loss brings grief. Having to cancel the vacation you were looking forward to can be grieved. Having to postpone your wedding can be grieved. Missing out on a big part of your last year in school can be grieved. We tend to compare our situations to others, and then feel we are not allowed to grieve because perhaps our situation isn’t as bad as another’s. Again, all feelings are valid and deserve to be treated as such.
I am a New Yorker, and the only experience in my lifetime that I can begin to compare to what is happening now is the attacks on 9/11. I was 24 at the time and living with my grandfather in Astoria, Queens. The twin towers were a familiar landmark that could be seen from our town park. At the time, I was working for the Church as a youth minister and therefore worked evenings. The morning of 9/11, I heard the phone ring. My grandfather answered it, and all I heard him say was “Oh my God”. For some reason, I instinctively turned on the tv, and saw the towers burning. Then I saw them collapse. My father worked about one kilometer from the towers on Wall Street. We didn’t get word from him that he was safe until the midafternoon. I remember the fighter jets flying overhead and thinking/fearing that was going to be the day the world ended. It didn’t.
In the days after 9/11, I remember the fear and anger that was felt. I remember the rage, the blaming, and the desire for revenge. I remember the xenophobia and racism, similar to what is unfortunately being perpetrated by some today. However, what I remember most about the days and months after 9/11, and what I have been grieving for many years now, is the kindness and gentleness that overcame the city. As the anger and fear began to subside, what is normally buried underneath anger and fear began to shine through: hurt. Pain. And this shared hurt, this shared pain, brought us together.
Another strategy I sometimes use with “What if” thinking is talking through the best case scenarios, and not just the worst. I have been doing this a lot lately, and wanted to share it here:
What if when this passes, and it will pass, we learn that Mother Earth has had time to heal and the damage done by climate change has slowed?
What if when this passes, and it will pass, we remember the importance of real, face to face, connection and we spend less time on our screens and more time being present to each other?
What if when this passes, and it will pass, we remember our common humanity and spend more time focusing on what brings us together instead of what divides us?
What if when this passes, and it will pass, all countries finally recognize that access to quality health care is a human right and not a privilege?
What if when this passes, and it will pass, all people will recognize the contribution of first responders, healthcare workers, grocery store employees, retail workers, restaurant workers, delivery workers, transit workers, teachers, parents, and that all of this work should be valued with the dignity of a living wage?
And what if when this passes, and it will pass, we are all a bit more humble, more compassionate, more grateful, kinder, and community-minded?
If you, or someone you love, are starting to feel the effects of this trauma, please reach out. There are many resources to be shared. We all must support each other. I will leave you with this great podcast episode from Dr. Brene Brown that I listened to last night: https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-on-comparative-suffering-the-50-50-myth-and-settling-the-ball/