Anxiety and the Mind, Pt 1

Anxiety is the old “chicken or the egg” story. In this case there is no doubt which came first.

Anxiety starts with thinking. The sufferer may or may not be aware of the catalyzing thoughts – but it starts with thinking.

You may recall from our previous series that fear is the perception of a present threat to self. Anxiety is all about what is perceived to be on the horizon.


The two words that hatch anxiety

I want to give you a short phrase which breathes life and power into anxiety. In fact, I’m not sure anxiety could exist at all if not born anew with each episode by this very term. So, just what is this phrase?

“What if…?”

That’s it. Two simple monosyllabic words which, when put together with other words starts the cascade toward an anxiety episode.

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  • What if everybody laughs because I’m a lousy dancer?
  • What if I start to talk and forget the text of my speech?
  • What if Mom and Dad start it up again at Thanksgiving?
  • What if I don’t get the promotion?


You get the idea.

Note how, by their very nature, these two words turn whatever follows into a question. It’s a very old way to sow doubt in the mind. It may even be the oldest way of all! See if you remember this story from the Judeo-Christian tradition:

Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”

In other words, “What if God didn’t really say that?”


Think back to something that made you anxious. Try to recall how the What if  question played out in your mind and you’ll note that the question is a question only in the rhetorical sense. In other words, you’re not really supposed to supply an adequate answer/solution to the issue the question is posing. The full intent of the What if is simply a conditioned way (there’s Pavlov’s bell again) to ignite anxiety in you.

Take the first example I gave you of What if questions above: What if everybody at the party laughs at me because I’m such a lousy dancer?

It’s not really that your mind poses that question to you and then waits patiently while you use that same mind to construct a well-reasoned and satisfactory answer. “Well, let’s see. Should that happen I could…”

No, not at all. That’s not the intent of the question. I’ll say again, it’s rhetorical. It’s Pavlov’s bell to start you into a conditioned response of becoming anxious – to fire up the anxiety.

It’s a process the anxiety sufferers have reinforced many times over the years via habit.


So, if the real response the [fake] question is looking for is not an actual answer, then what is it?

The intended response is actually an affective (emotional) one. You’re supposed to start freaking out. In short, you’re supposed to experience anxiety.

Pretty clever, really. Your mind raises a hypothetical question based on what could possibly happen… and you become anxious as the payoff to the question.

The power of the mind! It’s so critical to our misery or happiness in life that I’ve written a three-part program to address it. (See “The Program” page on this site if you’re interested.)

Be aware of the What if script when it begins to play out in your mind. Refuse to go down that road. It’s a sucker’s game – the odds are stacked against you!

(Consultants hired to teach NFL and high-profile college coaches, politicians, and others who deal with the media, have a cardinal rule they teach their clients – don’t answer What if questions.)

One quick way to re-condition your mind when the What if question pops into your head is to respond with a statement. Don’t engage the question – but use it as a reminder to say something like:

I am confident and capable and I can handle what comes my way this day.

Note how this statement takes you out of the futuristic world of the What if scenario and brings you back to the only time that exists… today.

This practice also serves to exchange the negative emotion that arises immediately with What if for a positive emotional state – I am confident and capable.

There’s one thing more I want to cover with you on our subject of Anxiety and the Mind. We’ll look at that next time.


Dr Michael Ruth, Growth Resources, Personal Growth