We often think of anxiety as a faulty alarm system that keeps tripping even when there is no true danger present. Instead of “healthy” excitement that can help us to focus or motivates us to take action, anxiety is often debilitating nervous energy that shows up more frequently than necessary, keeps us from performing optimally or at all, isolates us, makes us feel sick to our stomachs, keeps us up at night, and gets in the way of our ability to make decisions.

It’s fueled by the two words “what if?” as our imaginations brilliantly conjure worst-case scenarios. We often do this for the purpose of inoculating ourselves, having an insurance policy, protecting ourselves. If we think of the worst thing that could possibly befall us, then somehow, we won’t be disappointed (is this really true?). Our imaginations are surprisingly powerful.

The stories we tell ourselves and the scenarios we visualize result in physiological effects on our bodies, which means that our bodies experience these visualizations as though they are actually happening, similar to how your body might respond when you’re watching a scary movie. So when you consistently think about that thing you most fear, for example, forgetting your main discussion points during a presentation, you might actually feel your heart begin to race, your body temperature begin to rise, your breathing become more shallow, or your focus begin to narrow. The more you imagine this negative scenario and your body responds in this way, the more you prime your body for that very experience. So instead of preventing it, you’re unknowingly paving the way for it. And when it does play out, you are likely no less disappointed then you would have been had you not plugged into fear.

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So how do we make those powerful two words “what if?” work for us? WHAT IF we flip how we use that phrase?

Let’s take our ‘presentation’ example. Use your imagination to consider great possibilities like – “What if” I nail my presentation and it prompts lots of interesting questions, which I have no problem answering because of all the preparation I’ve done? “What if” I discover I really enjoy presenting on this subject? “What if” I approach my presentation like I do any conversation, with interest and enthusiasm for what I want to share? As your imagination plays out these scenarios, your body experiences sensations different from the fear-based one mentally rehearsed before – there is a sense of calm and efficacy, preparedness, positive energy, the notion of sharing as opposed to performing, and maybe even a feeling of joy. When you link those physiological responses to positive “what if?” possibilities, you are no longer fueling fear and the need to fight, flee or freeze.

Changing your thoughts and beliefs about what will be can be instrumental in shifting the outcomes. It just takes a little practice.

Another important “What if?” -

What if anxiety was, in fact, your body’s way of trying to deliver a message, indicating that there is something you need to be paying attention to. What might that message be?

The symptoms of anxiety might be telling you to take better care of yourself or to slow down. They might be encouraging you to speak up for yourself more. They might be insisting that you need to make a change somewhere in your life. Anxiety might be indicating you need to take action.

Maybe anxiety isn’t all bad. Maybe once you heed its message, it will have less of a reason to hang around.

Shifting your thoughts and heeding its message are two of the most effective means of transforming anxiety. If you’re looking for additional ways to short-circuit it, here are some suggestions:

Eat healthy - moderate the caffeine and sugar you consume so that you don’t end up on a roller coaster of highs and lows as a result of excessive intake.

Exercise – be sure to move your body so that you feel connected to it, so that your mind and body are working together and supporting each other.

Sleep – do your best to ensure that you are charging your own battery, just like you charge your phone’s; getting ample sleep will give you the resources you need to deal with stress more effectively.

Breath work and meditation – practice being at home in your mind and body. Let go of self-judgment and the attachment to what “should” be.

Visualization and rehearsal – make it a habit of imagining what you WANT to have happen, and note that it can also be incredibly helpful to visualize what it means to be resilient, making a mistake or encountering an obstacle and still finding resources to see yourself through. Build up your mental muscle of knowing that things can go wrong and you can still succeed and be happy and well despite that.

Limit news intake and/or social media – the cost of being exposed to too much negativity can easily outweigh the cost of FOMO (fear of missing out); if it becomes too toxic, step away or at least take a vacation from it.

Speak to a therapist – you don’t have to handle it alone.

Laurie Leinwand, MA, LPC, Cl. Hyp of Three Steps Forward, LLC is a psychotherapist and integrative hypnotherapist. She has offices in Denville and Florham Park.