Three Little Birds - the power of changing anxiety's what if's in to even if's

Three Little Birds
The power of changing anxiety what if's to even if's

I’m a few weeks into the Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) for my OCD related anxiety, which I’ve talked about in the last few posts, so if you’re curious what that’s all about check it out here and here. Basically it’s a way to lean into the anxiety, rather than do something to try and calm it or make it go away.

Turns out this is especially helpful with OCD because my obsessive thoughts only get more and more intense (and creative) the more I try and make the anxiety go away.

It’s been a really interesting learning experience for me for how I manage all of my anxiety, not just the OCD related anxiety, and it really came to a whole new level of clarity for me last week.

Changing your what-ifs to even ifs

Early on in the week I saw a video on Instagram that was suggesting that when it comes to anxiety and all of the what-iffing that we can do. You know, thinking of every possible scenario and even the impossible ones – to change those two words “what if” to “even if”.

That way you’re setting yourself up in a place of power, right? Even if this happens to go sideways and end up in a big dumpster fire for me – I can still do this, this and this. It creates space for a plan and, like I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of a plan.

In fact, it’s this need for a plan that has already started working against me in my ERP therapy.

I would have the intrusive thought that there’s a serial killer hiding in my house somewhere. Then I’d do what my therapist did by outlining the whole story of what was going to happen and how I was going to be murdered. But by doing this, I was removing all of the uncertainty from the scenario – so I was actually making it impossible to scare myself.

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So I had to ditch that and find a new way to lean into the anxiety at least for the work I’m doing to help calm my OCD intrusive thoughts.

But for all the other anxiety, I’ve been trying Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) strategies (without much success) of logically and objectively thinking it through, and then adding in this new strategy of switching out the what if’s to ‘even if’. 

I had an appointment with a new medical specialist last week and it increased my anxiety to an epic level because I’ve had a lot of medical trauma in the past five years. Some of that trauma is due to having my symptoms and concerns clearly being dismissed with a may-the-odds-be-ever-in-your-favour pat on the back and a list of ‘lifestyle changes’ to try. Which is frusrtating because the majority of the time I was already doing those things without any improvement.

It takes me a lot to be able to lower my guard in these kinds of appointments, but that day I decided to try switching all my what if’s to even if’s. No surprise, but it turned out it was a much more empowering mindset going into that examination room because I knew what the plan would be even if I was dismissed by this new doctor and told to figure it out for myself. 

I went into that appointment feeling a little bit more hopeful than I would have otherwise. I still got dismissed with a pat on the back and a list of lifestyle changes to try, and I still cried in the car on the drive home feeling let down by our healthcare system again. But I knew what the plan was for what my next step was going to be because I thought about the ‘even if’ scenario. 

My pity party was shorter, which I thought was a win.

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But then I started to realize that maybe the ‘even if’ idea wasn’t actually that effective for me to manage my anxiety.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, it is pretty powerful and would definitely work for a lot of people. For me, though, it seems to still push that anxiety away and try to dismiss it, rather than acknowledge it and lean into it.

The thing is that saying even if and then thinking about all the scenarios is still more empowering, but it also still uses up a ton of mental energy for me which is truly my most precious commodity.

Maybe my anxiety as a whole doesn’t need a plan. It just needs compassion and acceptance.

The same kind of compassion and acceptance I gave to my myalgic encephalomyelitis that day I collapsed into a puddle of grief beside my treadmill that I mentioned in this post.

This radical acceptance and compassion just seems so much more aligned for me than using CBT to explain it away. Especially when it comes to the strategy of thinking of the best, worst and most likely scenario and then focusing on the most likely. It feels like, by doing that, I’m denying this part of me that feels anxious.

what if I show unconditional compassion for every emotion I feel

The Link to Internal Family Systems

This is where Internal Family Systems comes back into play for me, which I talked about in the last post. Where I’m the caretaker of all of these parts – and they may have some pretty good and very valid points; but it’s really up to me to take all that information in and make a decision moving forward.

So instead of dismissing and denying this part of me that’s anxious, I’ve been trying to hold space for it and comfort this part of me, rather than try and logic it away.

This way of viewing my experiences feels like home.

It feels like compassion.

It feels like a powerful step on working with my inner child who was so used to having her emotions dismissed, vilified, or shamed. What if I show unconditional compassion to every emotion I feel?

That what-iffirmation mantra has been such a staple for me living life as a highly sensitive person in this world that’s scared to feel.

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What if I show unconditional compassion to every emotion I feel?

Compassion that hears and honours the experience, but isn’t getting swept up in it or allowing it to fully take over. Holding space, not handing over the reins.

For me, it also comes back to things that I’ve mentioned before, like trusting in one’s own strength. But it is also building on what I shared last week where I talked about the Japanese practice of Kintsugi – the art of repairing pottery with gold paint.

And so I’ve added a new mantra to my daily rotation and one that I will be saying to myself when I feel my anxiety start to rise. Whether it be from walking on ice (which triggers the heck out of me), going to a doctor’s appointment, or feeling the fear my OCD intrusive thoughts send my way.

Instead of dismissing my emotions and experiences or trying to logic them away, I will say:

“Even if this goes badly, I know I will figure out a way to turn the scars into gold.”

For me, my friend, that feels like the most comforting thing I could ever say to myself.

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Three Little Birds - Clay and Kelsy