Learning Objectives
      • To understand the nature and impact of catastrophic thoughts and their role in anxiety.
      • To comprehend the concept of positive what-if thoughts and their potential benefits in countering catastrophic thoughts.
      • To learn about the process of transitioning from catastrophic thoughts to positive what-if thoughts and how to implement it in everyday life.
      • To explore specific examples of positive what-if thoughts in various areas such as well-being, self-esteem, perfectionism, procrastination, and anxiety management.
      • To appreciate the value of mindful awareness, personal growth, and self-control in managing anxiety and fostering a positive outlook.

    Readers with anxiety already know catastrophic thoughts. What if you crash your car on the way to the store? What if you fail your exam? What if your relationship suddenly goes bad? What if your boss hates you? What if you really do have that disease you’ve been dreading? Any number of examples are easily invented. On the surface, catastrophic thoughts masquerade as rational by seeming to ask for a plan. That’s the “what-if” part. At the same time, catastrophic thoughts assume horrible, far-fetched scenarios for which no immediately effective plan is likely ever to be clear. No wonder that whole chains of catastrophic thoughts, sometimes three or more links deep, often precede the development of panic attacks. How many impossible scenarios can you take seriously before you’re curled up in fetal position with the covers over your head?

    Recently, I’ve been playing with the idea of positive what-if thoughts. These are deliberately created by the client to be the very opposite of the catastrophic thoughts. What if people find something positive in me that they both like and respect? What if my boss sees my progress, my dedication, and loves my work? What if I grew as a person, not in spite of setbacks, but because of them? What if I decide to set aside my insecurities, so that they no longer limit me?

    Just like the negative catastrophic thought, the positive what-if thought represents a forecast, a prediction. But instead of some dark scenario of suffering, the positive what-if thought suggests that the future could be radically open to improvement. Life could get better. And better. In fact, life could be awesome.

    Wait a minute, life awesome? Some readers will object to my pie-in-the-sky moment. For them, awesome would mean reducing the amount of Xanax they need to leave the home and buy groceries. Awesome would be having a catastrophic thought NOT immediately followed by fear of a panic attack. Suffocate long enough in the hot fire of anxiety and your standards change.

    Here’s exactly why I like positive what-if thoughts: They’re active, always available. If you want to binge out on positive what-ifs, go right ahead. No one can stop you. Every great human adventure starts with a dream and a dreamer, right? But notice that the dreamer agrees to give themselves to the dream. That’s the contract, core to the whole dreamer thing, and the only reason why dreams are fulfilled. In contrast, catastrophic thoughts are passive. They just appear out of nowhere. You can recognize them when they happen, you can refuse to chase the catastrophic thought down the rabbit hole of its alternate reality, but you cannot will catastrophic thoughts never to occur. You certainly do will positive what-if thoughts to occur. The thoughts themselves are totally and completely within your control. And perhaps more importantly, so is your conviction about them. The more you choose to believe such thoughts, the more likely it is that they come true.

    Of course, you might question the value of positive what-if thoughts. More psychobabble from psychotherapy, perhaps. But look closely. You give absolute faith and conviction to your catastrophic thoughts. So much that you may choose to follow up with panic attacks. Later you realize how improbable the catastrophic thought really is. You can’t believe you believed it. So rather than question the value or realism of the positive what-if thought, instead of caustic criticism or withering logical analysis, try believing them. Give yourself to your positive what-ifs as you would give yourself to being in love. You don’t develop a rational basis for being in love, you give into it and go with it. A dream begins. But scoff, and the dream dies.

    For best practices, positive what-ifs should be combined with mindful awareness and focused on the moment. Doing so automatically brings your mind to a crossroads when anxiety and worry start. Anxious thoughts are unrealistic, by definition. The pictures they paint are extreme. In contrast, positive what-ifs recognize that you have one foot in the past and one foot in the future. The past is your anxiety, those are the “old rules.” And if you continue to play by those old rules, your life will be forever limited by them. The positive what-if thought is your foot in the future, the person you want to become. You’re not there yet, but you know the direction you want to go in. You know to work on your thoughts and you’re practicing.

    Here’s a concrete example: Let’s say you’re dogged by a particular catastrophic thought, perhaps “I will fail my exam…lose my scholarship…be kicked out of school…embarrass my family…be divorced as a failure by my spouse.” Your exact catastrophic sequence will no doubt be different, but you get idea: You lose everything. So, you experience this catastrophic thought, and–remembering what your therapist taught you about mindful awareness–you recognize that you’re about to go down the rabbit hole and could experience a panic attack. That’s the crossroads. Every negative thought is a crossroads.

    So instead, you choose a healthy direction, a positive what-if thought: What if I set aside enough time to study, immerse myself in the material, find whatever help I need, and do quite well? In fact, what if I get an A on the exam? And what if I follow up on my success by repeating it over and over again? What if I decided to believe in myself on the basis of this new evidence? Yes, you could choose the panic attack. Your heart will race out of control. You will sweat, suffocate, feel like you’re going crazy or even dying. Or, you could generate a positive what if, sense its realism, give in to hope, and commit yourself to that thought. In fact, your positive what-if could be a series of positive what-if thoughts, just like we’ve painted here. Where do you want to put your faith? Your courage? The crossroads beckons.

    Your Positive What-If Thoughts

    The exact positive what ifs most helpful to you depend on the nature of your anxious thoughts. In my experience as a therapist, anxiety usually contains a hidden growth message. Anxiety finds some area of vulnerability, and that’s where it settles in. Maybe it’s about your performance at school or work, your health, your value as a person (self-esteem or self-worth), your relationships, or your future. Whatever the case, it’s an area you want to grow in, but anxiety seems to be blocking you, so much so that it’s hard to ever imagine that things could change. This is the perfect place to develop some positive what-if thoughts. Here are some “starter thoughts,” below. If you want to take this technique to its logical limit, develop some imagery that you can rehearse in your meditation sessions. Take time to actually SEE the consequences in your mind’s eye. That makes it real and sharpens your motivation.

    Well-Being

        • What if I focused on succeeding because of setbacks, not in spite of them?
        • What if I focus more on progress rather than on the obstacles?
        • What if I viewed attitude and integrity as the point in life, rather than cars, houses, educational degrees or any other material thing or adornment of the self?
        • What if I took one small step each day, just because I can? What if I planned those steps?
        • What if I treated my insecurities as illusions?

      Self-Care, Self-Esteem, Self-Worth

          • What if I cared enough about myself to lay solid foundations?
          • What if I stopped telling myself that I am destined to fail? Or, what if I viewed failure not as destiny, but as a state of mind?
          • What if I stopped blaming myself and started complimenting myself?
          • What if I get started believing that I actually deserve to be loved?
          • What if I focus on what is important to me, rather than on pleasing others?
          • What if I choose to respect myself more than I respect those who would shame me?
          • What if I live my life the way I choose to, without bothering to evaluate what others might think?
          • What if I were not imprisoned by “you ought” and “you should”?
          • What if I stopped trying to live according to the expectations of others?
          • What if I choose to express my opinion as being equally important to that of anyone else, not more or less?

        Perfectionism

            • What if I recognized that mistakes are part of every human journey?
            • What if I treated the process of creating as more important than the product?
            • What if everyone makes mistakes, and it’s impossible not to?
            • What if I could let go of perfection and just live as the person I am?
            • What if perfect people actually alienate others through their perfectionism?
            • What if recognize that my perfectionism is just a facade, and that I must accept myself just as I am?

          Procrastination

              • What if I got started right now?
              • What if I refused to let my ambivalence sabotage my accomplishments?
              • What if I made a plan and worked my plan?
              • What if I stopped blaming myself about opportunities my procrastination has cost me?

            Anxiety and Worry

                • What if I generated positive what-if statements as a counterbalance to worries and catastrophic thoughts?
                • What if I stopped giving catastrophic thoughts my faith, pulled back immediately, and chose a positive what-if thought?
                • What if I recognize that panic attacks never last forever?
                • What if I stopped worrying and just enjoyed things happening in the moment, right now?
                • What if I let the good things about my life be more important than the bad things?
                • What if I stopped striving so hard and pressuring myself so much and just enjoyed my relationships with friends and family?
                • What if I accepted the physical symptoms of anxiety and stopped trying to fight it?
                • What if I started walking and exercising and meditating?
                • What if I sought comfort by expressing my anxious thoughts to someone, rather than try to stand alone?
                • What if I take steps, however small, and use those to cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning?

              Reading Comprehension Questions:

                  1. What is the main characteristic of catastrophic thoughts as described in the text?
                        • A. They are positive predictions about the future.
                        • B. They are hypothetical scenarios that could lead to panic attacks.
                        • C. They are the result of rational thinking and planning.
                        • D. They are reflections on past experiences.
                    1. How are positive what-if thoughts different from catastrophic thoughts according to the text?
                          • A. Positive what-if thoughts represent the past while catastrophic thoughts represent the future.
                          • B. Positive what-if thoughts assume horrible scenarios, while catastrophic thoughts suggest improvement.
                          • C. Positive what-if thoughts are passive while catastrophic thoughts are active.
                          • D. Positive what-if thoughts represent a positive forecast, while catastrophic thoughts represent a negative one.
                      1. According to the author, what is the value of believing in positive what-if thoughts?
                            • A. They are guaranteed to prevent anxiety.
                            • B. They can help shift your mindset and potentially change your future outcomes.
                            • C. They can provide logical answers to your worries.
                            • D. They make you immune to panic attacks.
                        1. What does the author suggest as a strategy when facing the crossroads of anxiety and worry?
                              • A. Choose a panic attack as it will provide relief.
                              • B. Give in to the catastrophic thoughts to resolve them.
                              • C. Ignore both the catastrophic and positive what-if thoughts.
                              • D. Choose a healthy direction with a positive what-if thought.
                          1. How does the author suggest dealing with areas of vulnerability discovered through anxiety?
                                • A. By ignoring them as they are just illusions.
                                • B. By dwelling on them to understand their root cause.
                                • C. By developing positive what-if thoughts targeted towards these areas.
                                • D. By considering them as unchangeable and permanent aspects of oneself.

                          Answers:

                              1. B. They are hypothetical scenarios that could lead to panic attacks.
                              1. D. Positive what-if thoughts represent a positive forecast, while catastrophic thoughts represent a negative one.
                              1. B. They can help shift your mindset and potentially change your future outcomes.
                              1. D. Choose a healthy direction with a positive what-if thought.
                              1. C. By developing positive what-if thoughts targeted towards these areas.