- The mind’s questions often spike anxiety and insecurity.
- More helpful questions are empowering and reduce anxiety.
- With practice, you can train the brain’s response to uncertainty.
One of the brain’s most common tricks is to ask questions that put you on the defensive and fix your attention on things you can’t control. These questions make it seem like you’re a victim of circumstances as if your well-being depends entirely on external forces. See how many of these questions you recognize in your own anxious thoughts:
- How will today go?
- What if ____ happens?
- Will something bad happen if I take this risk?
- What might go wrong?
- Will life go my way?
These questions put you at the mercy of outside forces. Better questions restore your agency. You get to decide how you’ll face each day. You can choose what you do when life doesn’t go your way.
When you find that your mind’s questions are stressing you out, replace them with ones that put you back in charge (adapted from my book Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
1. Anxious question: How will things go today?
Better question: Who do I want to be today?
Anxious worries about the day ahead are often waiting for you first thing in the morning, even before you open your eyes and put your feet on the floor. Rather than focusing on what might or might not happen in the hours ahead, focus on how you want to meet the day. What kinds of thoughts and beliefs will you cultivate? How will you move toward joy and the things that make you come alive? Who will you show love to?
2. Anxious Q: What if ___ happens?
Better Q: How will I deal with ___ if it happens?
Worry is driven by anxious what ifs, but the things that could happen are only 50 percent of the story. The more important half is how you would respond. Even in the unlikely case that your fears come true, you’ll find a way to deal with it—just as you’ve dealt with every challenge in your life so far. Shift from a problem focus to a coping focus, and release a preoccupation with all the unknowns.
3. Anxious Q: Will something bad happen if I take this risk?
Better Q: Is it worth finding out?
Fear and anxiety take up a lot of mental space when you’re thinking about taking a bold step—from trying a new recipe to changing jobs or starting a new relationship. Questions about whether something bad will happen can hold you back from taking important steps in your life because anything new will bring risk and uncertainty.
But life would be pretty dull if we avoided things that might not go perfectly. You don’t have to figure out in advance how your life will go. You discover what your life will be as you live it.
I definitely understand the fear of regret that holds us back, and the voice that says it will be “all my fault” if things don’t go well. But even if things turn out badly, it wasn’t a mistake to try. Any outcome is information. Now you know. Maybe it’s worth taking a chance and seeing what happens, rather than living with regret about playing it safe.
4. Anxious Q: What might go wrong?
Better Q: What might go right?
Evolution shaped your brain to pay special attention to threats and danger, which helped your ancestors survive and pass on their genes. A bias toward the negative is great for survival, but not optimal for peace of mind or living fully. A narrow focus on the potential negatives can easily eclipse a consideration of the positives.
For example, when I was leaving my relatively secure job in a university about a decade ago, it was easy to think of the risks involved. It took a lot more effort to imagine all the good that could come from setting out on my own. It’s good to be aware of risks while also giving airtime to the good that likely lies ahead.
5. Anxious Q: Will life go my way?
Better Q: Can I open to what life brings?
This final shift may be the most liberating of all. Our minds are strongly inclined toward splitting the world into “for me” and “against me.” Everything you experience is tagged with “good or bad,” “loss or gain,” “pleasure or pain,” and so forth.
While these categories are useful on one level, they’re also limiting. A pro-or-con fixation creates the illusion that you can be OK only within a narrowly defined set of circumstances. As a result, you resist the parts of reality that don’t conform to your hopes and expectations.
This mindset leads to a tremendous amount of suffering, on top of the pain that life will bring. When you resist life as it is, you feel the double struggle not only of the difficulty itself but of your fight against it. You’ll also experience the constant hum of threat that comes from needing everything to go the way you want it to—because what if life doesn’t comply?
See what it’s like instead to make friends with uncertainty and allow reality to be as it is. You’ll still take appropriate action to solve problems and avoid harm without the added layer of telling yourself, “This shouldn’t be happening.”
Changing the questions you ask can open you up to a fuller and more peaceful way of living.
Gillihan, S. J. (2022). Mindful cognitive behavioral therapy: A simple path to healing, hope, and peace. HarperOne.