How to Let Go of the Fear and Cure the "What-Ifs"

Patient Expert

A few winters ago on a particularly chilly Wisconsin day my car gave up the ghost. Smack-dab in the middle of rush hour. I was at the midpoint of my sixty mile commute. It was there amidst speeding cars and ungloved hands that I had a meltdown.

Nevermind the steady stream of heat still keeping me warm inside the car.   Nevermind the just-changed insulin pump with a full reservoir of Humalog. I could have been stranded in the freezing cold without fast-acting glucose, without spare insulin, without my cell phone.

I felt panicky. "What if I can't reach anyone? What if I freeze? What if my bloodsugar plummets? What if I had rushed out of the house and forgot your cell phone? What if no one stops to help me? I could've been in serious trouble"

As I rummaged through my purse for my AAA card while holding for an agent, my mind was now reeling, wondering if my 110 mg/dl bloodsugar was on its way down. Wondering how I was going to pay for whatever was wrong with the car. Wondering if the college would have anyone to fill in for my classes if AAA takes too long. I chided myself for not being more careful.

I was fine with the long commute to work, but I had forgotten to factor in winter preparedness and diabetes supplies. I kept food and diabetic supplies out of the car so they wouldn't freeze.

My friend refers to the kind of worry and incessant negative chatter I'm known for as "my inner Piglet." And man, was my inner-Piglet on a roll!

Luckily, she can play Pooh to my Piglet rather well. She quoted Pooh to me in an email later that day:

"Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?"

"Supposing it didn't," said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.

This is Pooh at his finest. The simple, wise thought of someone who sees the situation for what it is--and what it is not. Classic Pooh is our zen-like sage here.

If you're anything like me, sometimes you have the wisdom of Pooh.

Other times it's easy to act more like Piglet: we see trouble brewing on the horizon. We sense big things looming over us like storm clouds, all ominous and gray. We imagine what could happen IF. (If we have children with diabetes or had diabetes as children, we or our  parents likely did this often, albeit silently.)

We spend precious energy and time being anxious about the question marks in our lives. The what-ifs. The worst-case scenarios. From run-down cars to our health and insurance, to what could've happened when we started driving without knowing we were low or if the guy behind us hadn't slammed on his breaks.

What's helpful about listening to this cycle of worry, anxiety and paralyzing fear is"well, nothing really.

As responsible adults who care about our health and the health of our loved ones it's normal to sometimes feel like we must worry about things because, well, if we stop worrying then that's exactly when something's going to happen. Right when we're blissfully unaware and overly optimistic.

But that's a fool's paradise. When we are dragged down by worry and paralyzed by fear of the future or potential "what-if" scenarios, we can't respond well to an opportunity or situation even if we had to. Instead of being present in our bodies and with our children, we take ourselves out of the moment and flood our minds with worry. We're not actually living our lives anymore. We're ten steps ahead or stuck in the muck of the past and what could've been.

Why Piglet Moments Matter

We can all be a bit like Piglet at times, so do we really have to worry about that too?

No.  Don't worry. But do observer your thoughts and reactions. When we let that nagging anxious voice in over and over again, it becomes the soundtrack to our lives. Without meaning to, we end up living the fear-filled life we thought we were avoiding with all our worrying in the first place.

Because what we habitually think becomes our reality.

Letting Go of Anxiety & Fear

Harvard-trained brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor (author of My Stroke of Insight)  states that when emotions like fear, anxiety and anger are triggered, they produce a set of physiological responses in our bodies. You know the feelings: quickening heartbeat, tightness in the chest, upset stomach, etc.

The body's physiological response to such emotions lasts for just ninety seconds. So in the absence of any true fearful situation, our bodies are over this stuff in a minute and a half.

Meanwhile our brains continue to run the familiar loop: "Things aren't safe here. Danger! Bad stuff's about to happen. On guard!" We engrain that loop in our brains by feeding it these thoughts. Over and over again. It becomes our default.

Instead of letting our worries crowd out the present moment, try this today instead:

  1. Be your own observer. Notice when you find yourself in a Piglet moment (this has already happened to me today and won't take too long if you pay attention!).
  2. Observe how long your body feels uncomfortable. Let it feel that way for a minute or two.
  3. Tell your brain you have no need for those thoughts anymore and focus on doing an immediate task instead. Resist the urge to tell all your friends about it.
  4. Repeat this like a ritual when negative thoughts appear and watch your brain rewire itself with better thought patterns.
  5. Notice your anxiety lessen bit-by-bit and your space for productivity and present-moment awareness soar.

It's an ongoing process. But remember, it is the stories we keep telling ourselves, our neighbors, our doctors, our families that keep our fear and anxiety alive. Meanwhile we've got loved ones and friends who would love a little of our time, but we're too busy retelling our dramas. We are not present except to our stories.

Sure, your inner Piglet will visit your thoughts now and again. But he will no longer take up residence there. Pooh, however, is always available for counsel.