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What's worse? Having an anxiety disorder or recovering
from an anxiety disorder? On the surface the answer is
obvious. Yet many anxiety sufferers who improve are haunted
by the "what if" questions. "What if my success is only
temporary?" "What if I relax and enjoy myself and I'm
blindsided by fear?" "What if what seems like improvement
is only an illusion . . . ?"
When the "what if questions" persist, and goad you into
taking them seriously, they can steal from your quality of
life almost as greedily as the anxiety disorder itself.
That's why it's important to have a coping plan to
For most anxiety sufferers, a good coping plan for living
with "what if" questions will have at least two components.
The first is the recognition that once you've learned to cope
successfully with anxiety, you're not the same person you
were before you were armed with skills and knowledge. Before,
when you didn't know the true nature of anxiety, it seemed
entirely possible that each symptom represented the chance
of something awful. You had no way of knowing that you
weren't likely to end up hospitalized, incapacitated, or
worse. You had no way of knowing that panic and anxiety are
tricksters that don't really represent true danger.
Once you've attained a certain degree of recovery, you know
better. And once you know, there's no way of un-knowing.
You might forget for awhile, but now you face a different
situation than before. Now, if you face a setback, you can
remind yourself of your successes and work to reclaim them.
If anxiety and panic weren't so wily, the first part of the
coping plan would always be enough. But the power of the
"what if questions" is such that they can sometimes override
your first line of defense - reminding yourself of knowledge
and successes. For example, you remind yourself that you've
coped successfully in the past, but then you find yourself
thinking, "True, I coped successfully in the past, but
there's no guarantee that I can do it again." "In fact, it
was only a fluke that I was doing better." You forget that
your symptoms have a long history of predicting catastrophes
that never occur, and start to once again focus on fear: this
time, the fear of losing all your gains and returning to
To combat this sort of infiltration of "what if" questions,
you need to see them for what they are: a disguised version
of the same old panic and anxiety trick. In other words,
treating these questions as if they somehow predict real
danger is no different from treating symptoms as if they
represent real danger. Both the questions and the symptoms
are faulty alarms that offer no real information. Likewise,
the fear of "returning to square one" is really no different
than any other harmless fear.
So the next time the "what if questions" pop up, you can see
them for what they are, and even look upon them with amusement,
much the same way you might respond to a persistent child who
attempts ever more creative angles to get his or her way.
Alternately, you can see them as an indicator you might be
experiencing more stress, and use them as a cue to practice
the self-care techniques that you've found to be useful.
Just don't let them trick you into responding as if you just
received advance warning of some terrible danger. Rather,
recognize them for the trick they are.