The unanswerable questions that create anxiety

Often in clinic there are clients who have developed severe levels of anxiety by asking themselves questions which are impossible to answer.

“What if” is a question which may be useful in creative writing, but for people with anxiety, it can be the worst question they ask themselves.

Consider this process.  A client asks themselves a ‘what if’ question:

“What if I get stuck on the freeway”?

If they fail to address or answer the question, it loops around and they will often find themselves asking it again.

The magic number is 3 – when a person has asked the question 3 times, without answer, the brain uses its learning processes to associate that question with the fear response it is generating.  When the person believes this is a critical question to answer, they ‘load up’ on emotion which then gets strongly associated with it.

Now, as the person thinks about the freeway, or asks themselves this question, all of the associated fear and emotion comes back.  This becomes their ‘anxiety response’ to freeways, even though they have never had a negative experience with one.

In reality, there was probably no need to even ask that question.  Or the ability to answer it comes down to accepting that in the moment, the person has the capability to respond and manage that situation in an OK manner.

The person could also choose to ask “what is the worst that can happen (and how would I cope with that?)” – which can help test their capacity to act and cope in the circumstance.

Regardless, if I continue to ask myself questions about the future for which I cannot possibly have an answer yet, I will get stuck, and potentially get anxious about that situation.

I may as well ask myself “what would have happened if JFK was not shot in Dallas?”.  It may be an interesting thought exercise, but it adds no value to my lived experience.

In fact, changing the question to “what is the next smallest thing I can do”? is often far more valuable.  Taking actions, even if they are small, allow people to regain control, shift focus and move forward toward feeling and doing better.

If you are asking yourself lots of ‘what if’ questions:

  • Can you answer the question? – then answer it
  • Is the question unanswerable? – then realise it doesn’t matter right now.
  • Change the question – to find out or to act, and shift your focus and regain control.

As part of strategic therapy utilising hypnosis, I will commonly work with people to shift the way they ask themselves such questions, modify the way they interact with their thoughts and feelings and regain both control and positive action which can move them rapidly – and permanently – beyond their anxiety.