Sylvia was distraught. “If only I had noticed the extent to which he was in pain! I mean, if I had noticed, then I could have insisted he went to the doctor earlier. What if I had done that? If only I had! He might still be alive and with me today.”

She was talking about her husband, who had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and given weeks to live. Now, a few months on from his death, she could not relieve herself from the thoughts whirling around, the “what if’s” and the “if only’s.”

Penny was troubled by these thoughts too. Living alone and coming to terms with her retirement and advancing age, she wasn’t reflecting back over past events, but was projecting into the future.

“What if I downsize? I know it’s sensible, but what if I end up liking a place but then, once I move in, discover that I hate it? What if I don’t make any good friends? How will I cope? I can’t expect the children to be there for me all the time.”

She also was succumbing to an attack of the “what if’s.”

The problem with these kinds of thoughts is that they get in the way of enjoying your life right now. They interfere with appreciating what you do have, because of their insistence on focusing on what you don’t have.

Here are 3 ways you can deal with these kinds of thoughts when they rear their heads:

Stop What You Are Doing

Close your eyes and take a deep breath. When you re-open them, deliberately look around and state out loud what you can see.

“I see a window in front of me, the view is of the street with cars passing up and down. The sun is shining in the window, creating a shadow in the room. I see a coffee mug on the table under the window,” and so on.

This practice, which only takes a couple of minutes, focuses your mind on the present, instead of the past or the future.

Make a List of 50 Things You Are Grateful for

Even though a list of 50 can sound like too much, especially when you are stuck in a case of the “if only’s,” you can definitely find many things to be grateful for. The more you write, the easier it becomes.

The amount of energy involved in thinking thoughts that are not useful can be transformed by this practice into thoughts that make you feel good.

Pay Attention to Your Surroundings

Recognise that a “what if” can be easily transformed into a “what is…” simply by noticing what is happening around you.

When you can view your thoughts as if from afar, even as if they were being thought by someone else, then you create a distance which allows you to view them more objectively.

To do this, imagine that who you are is a person watching a train go by in the distance – a train full of thoughts.

Actively see/sense/feel yourself watching a train, the passengers of which are your thoughts. Watch it go by, and notice the desire you have to jump onto the train, and into the carriage full of your “what if’s” and “if only’s.”

Then decide to get in another carriage instead – choose a different thought – or not even get on the train at all, and just let it carry on past you. Then go and find something else enjoyable that emphasises what is going on in your life right now.

No matter how awful things are, there is always something good, kind or beautiful that you can choose to focus on. These are all simple mind tricks that really make a difference when you practice them.

Once you are free from focusing on the past or the future, then you will find yourself able to make decisions more clearly, to move forward with a project, to be inspired to take action on something that will bring you and others joy and pleasure.

It may be as simple as a phone call to a friend, a post on social media, or even a walk in your garden, or round the block.

Do you recognise the what if’s and the if only’s? How do you deal with these thoughts when they come visiting? Please share your story and how you have decided to change it.

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