WIIAWO Issue #7: What if something bad happens (again)?

This week's "what if" is one that's difficult for me think about, but feels important to include: What if something bad happens (again)? In my experience, a lingering fear of having to go through a difficult event again is a common aspect of grief and trauma that I don’t often hear about.

Eight years ago, I lost my partner when we were in our late 20s. One of the aspects of grief that I still struggle with is the anxiety around something terrible like this happening again. This fear flares up whenever somebody doesn’t call or text me back, tells me that they’re feeling sick, is silently asleep, or in the bathroom for too long. In these situations, my mind often immediately goes to the worst-case scenario.

An illustration from Welcome to the Grief Club. Anyone else get really anxious when someone doesn’t text/call you back? 🙋🏻‍♀️

Similarly, I see others in my life struggle with continued anxiety around different kinds of hardships they've experienced: losing another job, the end of another relationship, having to move again, the return of a health condition, etc.

Being on high alert after experiencing trauma is common. But if sustained over time, it can take a toll. It’s exhausting and stressful to always be anticipating—and trying to prevent—the next bad thing.

1. Accept that there are always risks

We can’t keep everyone we love safe, even if we run ourselves into the ground trying to do so. We can't guarantee that a job or a relationship will work out, even if we mold ourselves into the "perfect" employee or partner. We can't safeguard against all sickness with exercise and diet.

What we can do—and what I've been trying to do—is to accept that there are always risks (ideally, I would embrace this fact but right now I'm settling for learning to tolerate it). We can accept that the world is full of potential discomforts and dangers, and that we can't anticipate and prevent those from happening no matter how vigilant or "good" we are.

Once we accept that we can't control future events, we can redirect our time and energy towards the things we can control, like ways to insert more joy, meaning, and rest into our present circumstances.

2. Focus on the facts

When I find myself worrying, I try to focus on the facts instead of my feelings. To do this, I ask myself a series of questions:

What behavior has triggered this worry?

They haven't texted me back. I'm afraid something bad is keeping them from texting back.

They put an untitled meeting on my calendar. I'm afraid I'm going to be fired.

Is there something about their behavior that is truly out of the norm?

No, they're often slow to reply.

Actually, I can think of a few times when they've scheduled surprised meetings for various reasons.

Are there likely scenarios that would explain their behavior?

They often forget to charge their phone, so it may be out of battery.

They've been focused on our big launch event coming up next week; the meeting could be to talk about last-minute details for that.

Usually, I can come up with other likely alternatives for their behavior that are more grounded in what I know (They are at work. They regularly have meetings at work. They wouldn't be checking their phone in a meeting.) than what I fear (What if they fell down somewhere and can't call for help?) I remind myself that the most likely scenario is that everything is just fine.

Also, if I insist on speculating, what if they haven't texted me back because they're too busy planning my birthday party? What if the surprise meeting is for a promotion? What if, it all works out?

3. Stay in the present

Even when I run through these questions and there aren't any facts to validate my worry, I still worry! So while I'm waiting to find out what's actually happening, here are some things I do in the meantime to help manage the anxiety spiral and keep focused on the present rather than the intrusive "what ifs":

4. We will meet things as they come

The next bad thing will happen; it's inevitable. But worrying about if, how, and when it happens doesn't keep it from happening; it only cuts into how much we're able to take in and enjoy what we have now.

So, I'm doing my best to stay present and focus on what I can control: I can show up for those I care about and be intentional about the amount and quality of time we spend together. I can be thoughtful about the messages and products I put out into the world. I can get enough sleep and go on walks and do the things I know help me feel better mentally and physically now. For everything else that hasn't happened yet; I will meet them as they come.

In sum:

The most likely scenario is that everything is just fine.
Even if your worry is understandable, it does not a signal that something is actually wrong.
If something is wrong, as unlikely as that is, you will be able to deal with it when it comes.
Do you have your own story, experience, or advice about worrying about bad things happening (again)? I'd love to hear it! Just comment below.
P.S. I'm not a mental health professional, just someone who has been through some hard stuff and am sharing what it has been like and what has worked for me. If you're struggling, please seek professional help.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published