Do you remember the last time you rode a roller coaster? Unfortunately for me, it has been over 20 years. I have developed vertigo as I have gotten older, and I’m scared to go on one now. However, I can still remember the nervous butterflies as the ride creaked higher and higher, sucking in my breath right at the top, and then losing myself in the experience as I went over the hills, upside down, and then came to a rolling stop at the end. The anticipation anxiety on the way up was, by far, the scariest part of the entire ride.
That’s true in life too, right? The anticipation anxiety is what keeps us up at night, wondering whether we can find the courage to take that next step. How many hours do we play “what if” with every imaginable scenario?
In my 18 years of therapy, I have never once had someone tell me that when they finally decided to do the thing that they have been anxious about, it was worse than they thought. For most people, I hear it was scary, certainly not fun, but not as bad as they thought it would be. I will not sit here and pretend that whatever it is you are thinking about as you read this (I’m sure we are all thinking about something!) will be easy or not anxiety-producing to some degree. But I can almost guarantee it won’t be as bad as you’re imagining.
There have been times in my own life that I spent more time in “anticipation anxiety” than I would care to admit. I remember the first time I was going to meet my biological father as an adult. What would we talk about? Would he like me? Would, would, would… that’s all I could think about. But you know what? We got through the dinner, albeit a bit awkwardly. And then there was getting ready for my daughter to be born. I wrote out PAGES of lists: things I would need at the hospital, things she would need the first month of her life, the first six months, what we were supposed to do if she wouldn’t stop crying. I thought if I prepared for every imaginable scenario, I could help ensure those first few months went as smoothly as possible. Guess what? It still didn’t.
How many hours does he spend dreaming about the woman that sits next to him before he asks her out? How many times does she go over her work presentation in her mind, trying to think of every possible question that could be asked? In my experience, even with true phobias thinking about getting treatment for them is far worse than when someone takes their first step in what is known as exposure therapy. People spend HOURS of their life worried about that next step in their life. But how do we decrease the “what-ifs”?
- Set a timer for the length of time you think you will need to plan. Yes, we do need to sit down and plan for the future at times. Setting a timer will hopefully help prevent you from adding additional hours of needless worrying to your preparation session.
- Let yourself think about the worst-case scenario. Call a friend if you need to and just let it all out. While this may sound counterintuitive, giving ourselves permission to talk about what we are scared of often helps the fear dissipate.
- Think about the most likely thing to happen given the information and evidence you currently have, after you talk about the worst-case scenario.
- Write down a list of small steps you can take that will hopefully help you start in the right direction. Do just the first one today. Concentrating on the end goal can often feel overwhelming, whereas breaking things down into more manageable ideas or tasks can be beneficial.
How many hours of our lives would we get back if we borrow the old Nike slogan and “just do it?” How many more nights would we get good sleep? How many other things would we be open to trying as well? Just go do it!
Disclaimer: If you are experiencing a phobia or a high degree of anxiety, it is recommended you work with a mental health professional regarding specific steps to take.