top of page

Identifying the Signs of 'What If' Thinking Anxiety

Updated: Jun 17

Man head with brain elevated with diffrent of thoughts

Have you started noticing the impact of 'what if' anxiety in your life after reading our previous post? Now, let’s take a closer look at how to recognize the specific signs and symptoms that indicate you might be stuck in a pattern of 'what if' thinking. Identifying these signs is a crucial step in addressing and managing anxiety effectively.

Identifying Common Symptoms of 'What If' Thinking Anxiety

Persistent Worrying: Persistent worrying is a core component of 'what if' thinking, where individuals repeatedly focus on hypothetical scenarios that have not occurred and may never occur. This type of worrying can be exhausting and paralyzing, affecting one’s emotional and physical well-being.

  • Description: You find yourself frequently caught up in scenarios that have not happened and may never happen.

  • Example: Constantly worrying about potential disasters, like "What if I get into a car accident?" even when there is no immediate danger.

Underlying Mechanisms

Cognitive Distortions:

  • Catastrophizing: Expecting the worst-case scenario without considering more likely, less severe outcomes.

  • Probability Overestimation: Believing that the feared event is more likely to happen than it actually is.

Emotional Reasoning:

  • Mechanism: Believing that because you feel anxious about something, it must be true or likely to happen.

  • Example: "I feel scared about driving, so it must be dangerous."


  • Mechanism: Constantly scanning for potential threats, leading to heightened anxiety and more frequent 'what if' thoughts.

  • Example: Continuously checking for traffic updates or news about accidents.

Intolerance of Uncertainty:

  • Mechanism: Difficulty accepting the inherent uncertainty of life, leading to attempts to predict and control the future.

  • Example: Over-preparing for every possible negative outcome to feel a sense of control.

Effects What If's anxiety on Daily Life

Persistent worrying can have several detrimental effects:

Reduced Quality of Life:

  • Constant anxiety can prevent individuals from enjoying daily activities, impacting overall happiness and satisfaction.

Impaired Functioning:

  • Decision-making can become difficult, leading to procrastination or avoidance of important tasks.

Physical Health Issues:

  • Chronic stress from persistent worrying can lead to physical symptoms like headaches, digestive problems, and muscle tension.

Strained Relationships:

  • Constant seeking of reassurance and avoidance behaviors can put a strain on personal and professional relationships.

Strategies to Manage Persistent Worrying

Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques:

  • Practice: Engage in mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation to reduce anxiety and stay present.

  • Benefit: Helps break the cycle of worrying by focusing on the current moment rather than hypothetical future scenarios.

Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques:

  • Thought Challenging: Identify and challenge cognitive distortions. Ask yourself, "What evidence do I have that this will happen?" and "What is a more likely outcome?"

  • Benefit: Helps reframe negative thoughts into more balanced, realistic perspectives.

Limiting Exposure to Triggers:

  • Practice: Reduce exposure to news or media that exacerbate worrying. Set specific times to check the news rather than constant monitoring.

  • Benefit: Reduces the frequency of anxiety-provoking triggers and allows for more control over information intake.

Structured Worry Time:

  • Practice: Set aside a specific time each day to worry about your concerns. Write them down and revisit them only during this time.

  • Benefit: Helps contain worrying to a limited timeframe, preventing it from taking over your day.

Engage in Problem-Solving:

  • Practice: Focus on actionable steps you can take to address your worries. If a concern is realistic, develop a plan to manage it.

  • Benefit: Shifts focus from ruminating on problems to actively solving them, reducing feelings of helplessness.

Difficulty Making Decisions:

  • Description: The fear of making the wrong choice paralyzes you, leading to procrastination and indecision.

  • Example: Spending hours weighing the pros and cons of a simple decision, like choosing a restaurant, out of fear of making a mistake.

Key Points:

  • Paralyzing Fear: You feel overwhelmed by the possibility of making a mistake and the potential consequences of your decision.

  • Procrastination: You delay making decisions, even simple ones, because of the fear of choosing incorrectly.

  • Analysis Paralysis: You spend excessive time weighing every possible outcome, which makes it challenging to come to a decision.

Impact on Daily Life:

Difficulty making decisions can extend beyond just major life choices and affect everyday activities:

  • Social Interactions: You might struggle to decide where to go or what to do with friends, fearing you'll make the wrong choice and ruin the experience.

  • Work Performance: In the workplace, difficulty making decisions can lead to missed deadlines or hesitancy in taking on new tasks.

  • Personal Life: Simple tasks like choosing what to eat for dinner or which movie to watch become sources of stress and frustration.

Root Causes:

Understanding why you struggle with decision-making can help you address the issue more effectively:

  • Fear of Failure: You worry that choosing the wrong option will lead to negative consequences or judgment from others.

  • Perfectionism: You set unrealistically high standards for yourself and fear that any choice that doesn’t meet those standards is a failure.

  • Overestimating Consequences: You magnify the potential negative outcomes of your decisions, making it hard to see the situation realistically.

Impact What If's Anxiety on Well-Being:

Difficulty making decisions can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being:

  • Increased Stress: Constantly grappling with decisions adds to your stress levels and can lead to feelings of overwhelm.

  • Decreased Confidence: Indecision can erode your confidence, making you doubt your abilities to make sound choices.

  • Loss of Opportunities: Procrastination and indecision may cause you to miss out on opportunities for growth and enjoyment.

Strategies for Coping:

  • Set Time Limits: Give yourself a specific timeframe to make a decision to prevent overthinking.

  • Trust Yourself: Remember that you have the ability to make good choices and that it's okay to make mistakes.

  • Focus on the Present: Rather than worrying about what might happen in the future, focus on what feels right in the present moment.

  • Practice Decision-Making: Start with small decisions to build confidence in your ability to make choices.


  • Description: You spend an excessive amount of time preparing for every possible outcome, even the unlikely ones.

  • Example: Bringing a full first-aid kit to a short hike due to fears of potential injuries, despite knowing the trail is safe.

Identifying Avoidance Behaviors:

Avoidance behaviors involve actively avoiding situations or activities that might trigger your 'what if' thoughts or anxiety. This avoidance can limit your experiences and opportunities for growth, perpetuating feelings of anxiety and fear.

Key Points:

  • Fear-Driven Avoidance: You avoid situations because you fear the potential negative outcomes or emotions associated with them.

  • Temporary Relief: Avoiding triggers may provide temporary relief from anxiety, but it reinforces the belief that the situation is dangerous.

  • Cycle of Avoidance: Avoidance can create a cycle where the fear of discomfort leads to avoidance, which in turn increases anxiety about similar situations in the future.

Types of Avoidance Behaviors:

Social Avoidance:

  • Avoiding social situations or interactions due to fear of judgment, embarrassment, or rejection.

Task Avoidance:

  • Putting off tasks or responsibilities because of fear of failure or not meeting expectations.

Emotional Avoidance:

  • Suppressing or avoiding uncomfortable emotions rather than facing them directly.

Risk Avoidance:

  • Avoiding taking risks or trying new things due to fear of uncertainty or potential negative outcomes.

Impact of What If's Anxiety on Daily Life:

Avoidance behaviors can significantly impact various areas of your life:

  • Social Life: You may miss out on social events, gatherings, or opportunities to meet new people.

  • Personal Growth: Avoiding challenges or risks can hinder personal and professional growth.

  • Emotional Well-Being: Avoiding emotions can lead to emotional suppression, which may worsen mental health issues.

Underlying Reasons for Avoidance:

Understanding why you engage in avoidance behaviors can help address them effectively:

  • Fear of Failure: You avoid situations where you might fail or be judged negatively by others.

  • Low Self-Esteem: Avoidance can stem from a lack of confidence in your abilities or worth.

  • Past Trauma: Previous negative experiences may lead to avoidance of similar situations to prevent re-experiencing trauma.

Consequences of Avoidance:

  • Increased Anxiety: Avoidance may provide temporary relief but reinforces anxiety in the long term.

  • Isolation: Social avoidance can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

  • Stagnation: Avoiding challenges or risks can prevent personal and professional growth.

Strategies for Overcoming Avoidance:

  • Gradual Exposure: Gradually expose yourself to feared situations or activities to build confidence.

  • Challenge Negative Thoughts: Challenge the 'what if' thoughts that drive avoidance and replace them with more realistic ones.

  • Seek Support: Talk to a therapist or trusted friend/family member for guidance and support.

  • Practice Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself when facing fears or discomfort."

Physical Symptoms:

Physical symptoms associated with anxiety can manifest as various bodily sensations resulting from constant worrying and 'what if' thinking. These symptoms can range from mild discomfort to severe manifestations and significantly impact your overall well-being.

Key Points:

  • Manifestation of Stress: Anxiety-related physical symptoms often result from the body's physiological response to stress and worry.

  • Heightened Awareness: Constant worrying can make you hyper-aware of bodily sensations, amplifying normal physical responses.

  • Feedback Loop: Physical symptoms can feed back into anxiety, creating a cycle of worry and physical discomfort.

Common Anxiety-Related Physical Symptoms:

Muscle Tension:

  • Feeling tense or tight muscles, especially in the neck, shoulders, or jaw.


  • Tension headaches or migraines triggered or worsened by stress and anxiety.

Gastrointestinal Issues:

  • Stomachaches, nausea, diarrhea, or other digestive problems.

Heart Palpitations:

  • Sensation of rapid or irregular heartbeat, often accompanied by anxiety.

Shortness of Breath:

  • Difficulty breathing or feeling like you can't get enough air, often due to hyperventilation caused by anxiety.


  • Feeling tired or fatigued, even after adequate rest, due to constant mental and emotional strain.


  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep because of racing thoughts or worry.


  • Excessive sweating, especially in stressful situations or when experiencing anxiety.

Impact on Daily Life:

Physical symptoms of anxiety can interfere with your daily functioning:

  • Reduced Productivity: Muscle tension, headaches, or fatigue can make it difficult to focus on tasks.

  • Discomfort in Social Situations: Physical symptoms may worsen in social situations, leading to avoidance or withdrawal.

  • Sleep Disturbances: Insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns can affect mood and overall well-being.

Connection to 'What If' Thinking:

Constant worrying and 'what if' thinking can exacerbate physical symptoms:

  • Heightened Arousal: Persistent worry keeps the body in a state of heightened arousal, leading to physical tension and discomfort.

  • Stress Response: The body's stress response can trigger physical symptoms even in the absence of immediate danger.

Managing Physical Symptoms:

  • Relaxation Techniques: Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation.

  • Regular Exercise: Engage in regular physical activity to reduce overall stress and tension.

  • Healthy Lifestyle: Eat a balanced diet, stay hydrated, and prioritize adequate sleep.

  • Seeking Support: Talk to a healthcare professional if physical symptoms persist or significantly impact your life.

How to Recognize These Signs


  • Technique: Keep a journal to track your thoughts and feelings throughout the day. Note instances of 'what if' thinking and the context in which they arise.

  • Benefit: This practice helps you become more aware of your thought patterns and identify triggers for your anxiety.

Mindfulness Practices:

  • Technique: Engage in mindfulness exercises, such as meditation or deep breathing, to stay present and observe your thoughts without judgment.

  • Benefit: Mindfulness can help you recognize when you are engaging in 'what if' thinking and redirect your focus to the present moment.

Feedback from Others:

  • Technique: Talk to trusted friends or family members about your worries and ask for their observations.

  • Benefit: Others can provide a different perspective and help you see patterns you might miss on your own.

Professional Help:

  • Technique: Consider seeking therapy, where a mental health professional can help you identify and address 'what if' thinking patterns.

  • Benefit: Professional guidance can provide you with effective tools and strategies tailored to your specific needs.

Cognitive Restructuring: Cognitive restructuring involves a series of steps designed to transform irrational or negative thoughts into more constructive and rational ones. This process includes identifying cognitive distortions, examining the evidence supporting or refuting these thoughts, and replacing them with healthier alternatives. It empowers individuals to break free from automatic negative thinking patterns and adopt a more objective and balanced perspective on their experiences.

  • Technique: Challenge your 'what if' thoughts by examining the evidence for and against them and considering more balanced perspectives.

  • Example: Replace "What if I fail this test?" with "I have studied hard, and I will do my best. One test does not define my future."

Set Realistic Goals: Setting realistic goals is an essential strategy for managing anxiety and achieving personal growth. Realistic goals are those that are attainable, specific, and time-bound, making it easier to track progress and stay motivated. Here's a detailed explanation to help you understand how to set realistic goals effectively.

  • Technique: Break tasks into smaller, manageable steps and focus on progress rather than perfection.

  • Example: Instead of worrying about the entire project, set daily goals and celebrate completing each step.

Acceptance and Commitment: Acceptance involves fully experiencing and embracing thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without trying to avoid or change them. This doesn't mean giving up or resigning oneself to suffering but rather recognizing and allowing internal experiences to be as they are. Commitment means taking action guided by your values, regardless of the internal discomfort you might experience. It's about making choices and engaging in behaviors that are consistent with what you find meaningful and important in life.

  • Technique: Accept that uncertainty is a part of life and commit to taking action despite your fears.

  • Example: Decide to attend the social event despite your worries and focus on enjoying the moment.

Practice Self-Compassion: Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness, care, and understanding that you would offer to a friend or loved one. It is about being gentle with yourself in times of failure, struggle, or when you're facing difficult emotions. Self-compassion helps reduce self-criticism, fosters resilience, and promotes emotional well-being.

  • Technique: Treat yourself with kindness and understanding when you experience anxiety, recognizing that everyone has fears and doubts.

  • Example: Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel anxious and that you are doing your best.


Recognizing the signs of 'what if' thinking is the first crucial step towards overcoming it. By identifying these patterns and implementing strategies to manage them, you can reduce your anxiety and lead a more balanced, fulfilling life.

Start today by journaling your thoughts and identifying one 'what if' pattern in your life. Challenge it with a more balanced perspective and see the difference it makes. For more tips and support, subscribe to our newsletter and join our community dedicated to overcoming anxiety.

Do you find the information helpful?

  • Yes

  • No

  • Not Sure

101 views0 comments


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page