top of page
  • Writer's pictureDr. D

Playing the "What If" Game

People, when they first come to see me, often think I’m going tell them what they should do.

But this isn’t my job. My job is to help people think through different approaches to a specific problem. They may already have an idea of what they should do but need to bounce it off someone. Or I might suggest some things they should consider. We discuss the pros and cons of each possibility. Then the person with the problem makes a choice as to which route to take.

Along the way, it’s common for people to bring up a number of potential outcomes that

worry them. What if I don’t get the job? What if he doesn’t love me? What if I fail the exam? What if…?

I tell them to answer the question…

… to play the “What if?” game. This is really inviting someone to confront what it is they’re afraid of and to plan ahead.

I talked, in an earlier post, about an herbal approach to stress. But that's for the person who realizes they're fearful. The “what if’s” tell me that the person is anxious. Sometimes they’re not even sure of what it is they’re worried about. So, we come up with possible scenarios. A discussion might be as follows:

Me: Ok – answer the question. What if you flunk the test?

Them: What if I fail the test? I might flunk the class.

Me: Have you flunked a class before?

Them: Never

Me: Have you flunked an exam before?

Them: Yes.

Me: Since you’ve never flunked a class, but you have flunked a test, what did you do to

keep from failing the course?

Them: I studied really hard.

Me: Have you studied for this test?

Them: Not enough.

Me: Then what are you going to do about it?

Instead of letting the person dither about what if? what if? what if? We come up with a concrete action plan. In this case, study more. It’s helped before.

What are you afraid will happen?

There’s a big difference between someone asking, “What if a huge flood comes and carries my house away?” and they live in the middle of the desert versus living in New Orleans close to the Mississippi. In the former case, psychotherapy and reality checking may be in order.

For the latter person, this is a perfect time to play the “what if?” game. Are you insured? Have there been floods in your neighborhood before? Do you know your escape route? Plan each step as much as you can.

If there is a flood…

1. … does it usually follow a storm? If yes, what should you be doing to save yourself and your possessions when it storms?

2. …has it ever happened without some kind of warning? If yes, how did this happen? Are there things you can do to limit the amount of damage or loss you would have? Have you done them?

3. … do you know the government’s recommendations for surviving a flood? If no – find out. If yes, have you implemented the suggestions?

4. …do you know where your emergency gear is?

This is the value of the “what if?” game: to reduce anxiety and replace it with a contingency plan.

Sometimes it isn’t that simple

Sometimes someone I’m working with can’t define what it is they’re afraid will happen. Sometimes they worry that they don’t know enough about a subject to even guess what might happen if…

Sir Francis Bacon said, “knowledge is power.” In other words, rather than fret about something you don’t even know much about, find out all you can. Yes, what you find out could be worse than you imagined, but at least now you know and can figure out ways to confront the issue.

For example, if you’re afraid of a nuclear plant meltdown, it might be good to know that the nearest reactor is two states away, that these events are exceedingly rare, and at that distance would not be likely to have a huge effect on you. Or if such might affect you, what can you do about it?

If you live in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, are there some things, like stocking up on iodine tablets, that you could do? Safety measures you can take?


You can’t make a plan for everything

Okay – the “what if” game plays well in a large percentage of cases. However, life throws us curveballs every now and then. Something unexpected happens so you haven’t made a plan. There is no question that you can’t be prepared for everything that could possibly happen. And the answer to “what if?” may be that there’s absolutely nothing you could do that will make a difference.

However, there is strength in looking at that possibility as well. If you find yourself paralyzed about “what if something happens that I never even dreamed of?” The answer is simple, but the action is hard; you need to learn to accept that in life, there is always some degree of uncertainty. If you can’t accept this fact, a therapist or someone similar may be able to help you become comfortable with it.

The Serenity Prayer speaks to this issue. Written in the 1930s, it's often quoted by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other similar groups.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Bottom line - don’t be the victim of your fears

- Answer the question “What if…?”

- Make a plan

- Find a friend, therapist, clergy, or someone else to help if you are unable to develop acceptance on your own.

Image of anxious person by:© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Ostill

Image of anxious words by: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Ibreakstock

bottom of page