Coping with What Ifs

Coping with the “What Ifs”

By Kristin Phillips, PhD

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, May’s blog is devoted to
coping with what keeps many of us awake at night: the “What Ifs.”
Just as the heart is always beating, the mind is always thinking. And when
the mind does not have something capturing its attention, it will find
something to think about… and it’s often worrying about the unknown.

What Ifs
What if I don’t have enough money to pay the bills?
What if I don’t succeed?
What if I see that dreaded person again?
What if this doesn’t work?
What if I don’t get any sleep?

When you or a loved one is facing a chronic illness, the “What Ifs” can get

What if treatment doesn’t work?
What if the pain gets worse?
What if I become dependent on others?
What if I die?

Living with Uncertainty

Living with uncertainty can keep us awake at night, and for some it can
also occupy our thoughts during the day. Worrying about the unknown can
be so intrusive that the thoughts take over our minds, making it hard to

think about anything else. When this happens, we are often missing out on
what is happening in the present. While we’re worrying about not being
here for our kids, we’re missing the ability to have a conversation with
them in the present. While we’re worried about not being able to run again,
we sit at home rather than going for a walk. While we’re worried about
being a burden to others, we miss the opportunity to ask how they are
doing or listen to how we can support them. While we are worrying about
the “What Ifs” of the future, we are missing out on living life in the present.

Returning Focus to the Present

Part of living with uncertainty is learning skills for acceptance of what we
cannot change, taking action on what we can change, and letting go of the
struggle for control.
1. When we notice ourselves feeling anxious, stressed, sad, or angry,
first acknowledge what we are feeling.
 “I’m feeling worried”
2. Notice the thoughts associated with those feelings.
 I was thinking “What if the pain gets worse”
3. Remind yourself that you are thinking about a “What If” about the
future, and without judgement, gently return your focus to
something in the present.
 I was worrying about the future and I don’t have any control
over what will happen then, but I will focus on what I am doing
in the present.

It sounds easy enough: each time you feel worried, recognize that your
mind has been swept away by the “What ifs” and gently return your focus
to the present. But we know that this can be easier said than done. As we
mentioned earlier, just as the heart is always beating the mind is always
thinking, so stopping your thoughts may not be possible. However, you
can teach yourself to focus your thoughts through practices such as


Mindfulness is one method of coping with depression, anxiety, stress, and
chronic pain by focusing on the present. There are various forms and
practices of mindfulness. Formal mindfulness refers to the practice of
meditation techniques. Informal mindfulness refers to being mindful
during everyday activities.
Modalities of psychotherapy that incorporate mindfulness techniques and
other techniques for living with uncertainty and managing the “What Ifs”
include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral
Therapy. These approaches have been adapted for people living with
chronic illnesses, such as insomnia, cancer, chronic fatigue, and chronic

For more information about living with uncertainty, coping with chronic
illness, or managing the “What Ifs” that occupy your thoughts, please call
us at 813-563-1155, email us at, or visit our
website at

Books on Mindfulness

For anyone living with uncertainty:
Wherever you Go There You Are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life by
Jon Kabat-Zinn

For people living with cancer:

Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery: A step-by-step MBSR approach to help
you cope with treatment and reclaim your life by Linda E. Carlson and
Michael Speca

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Tampa, FL 33609
(813) 563-1155

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