Imagine you’re walking in a parking lot with your phone in your hand and you cross over a storm drain. As you step across the grate, you reflexively hold a little tighter to your phone, because you may have the passing thought, “I don’t want to drop my phone down that drain.” The thought came and went in the space of half a second or so, and as soon as you were back on pavement, you held your phone with a normal grip and didn’t give it another thought as you stepped into the grocery store.
For that split second, you experienced some mild and fleeting “What If,” thinking, as in, “What if I dropped my phone down the drain?” and your thinking dictated your actions (you held the phone a little tighter). Now imagine if that “what if” thinking didn’t last a split second, but instead it lasted many minutes, or even hours, or even days? And imagine if the thought wasn’t a mild version of “What if I lost my phone?” but instead was an intense, nervous worry of “Oh my God! What if I dropped my phone down that drain!?! That would be terrible! I might be stranded…my wife might yell at me for being careless…people might think I’m an idiot…I absolutely must not drop my phone because that would be more than I could handle…”
And you knew there was no good reason to think like that. You knew that it was silly and irrational, but the thought was so intense that you couldn’t shake it, push it out, or laugh it off. So you just stop walking over storm drains. Problem solved.
But then you start to think, “What if there is another storm drain that I don’t see?” “What if I stumble near one and the phone goes flying out of my hand?” So now you avoid shopping there altogether, and you go looking for another store that doesn’t have any grates in their parking lot. But then another thought flashes into your mind: What if I was so busy looking for storm drains that I hit someone with my car and didn’t realize it? At first, the thought seems so stupid that you quickly dismiss it, but then it creeps back over and over until you think, “Wait…did…did I hit someone? Is that why I’m telling myself this?” So you pull over and check your car for damages, or you circle back to that parking lot to see if an ambulance has arrived to treat an injured pedestrian.
The entire time, there is a part of you that thinks: this is nuts. This is crazy! I know I’m being stupid. But the thoughts are so intense and are becoming more frequent, so soon you just tell yourself that you can’t drive any more and you can’t grocery shop any more so that you don’t have to feel this way.
Now you’re embarrassed. Someone has to drive you wherever you go and your loved ones have to take on more responsibilities and you feel like a burden. You feel ashamed and start to judge yourself, calling yourself a weak-minded idiot to think like that. You know that it makes no sense at all to think this way, but you just can’t seem to think of anything else.
It would be easier if you had surgery, you know? After all, you can point to a cast or a scar and say, “This is what happened to me,” and people would be more than understanding—they’d be sympathetic and kind. If you had cancer, people would send meals to your house. But you have an irrational, intense, nervous worry; people avoid you because they don’t know what to say.
Now you start to ask yourself, “Why is this happening to me? Why am I thinking this way? I know that my Grandma used to worry a lot; did I get this from her?” You start to try to find an explanation for why—and you just can’t. You spend half your mental energy trying to fight your unwanted thoughts and half trying to figure out, “Why the hell am I like this?”
And then your wife says, “Can’t you just not think that way? Just think about something else.” You know: just stop it. It seems like such a simple thing, after all: just stop thinking a certain way. Gee—why didn’t I think of that?
Now one or two people who love you start trying to be helpful to you—but nothing helps get rid of your unwanted “What if” thinking. Some people start to whisper about you behind your back that you’re “just doing it for attention” or that you’ve “always been super-needy.” You want to scream, “Why on earth would I do this for attention!?! If I wanted your attention, I’d ask for it!” You want to say, “You know me. I was a fairly rational person; why would I suddenly start to act like this if it wasn’t out of my control?”
Now, you’re depressed about how things are. You’re worried about your worrying. You might even start to drink a little more or smoke a little more, just to cope.
Spiraling, spiraling, spiraling…all from the most stupidfreakingthought…