I was sick most of the winter and spent a lot of time on the couch. I was too tired to read; every time I would pick up my book, I would fall asleep after two pages. I tried Netflix, but couldn’t find anything interesting to watch. I lacked the emotional bandwidth to deal with social media. So I ended up doing what, in retrospect, was the worst thing I could have done.
I read the news.
I’m not talking about the newspaper you currently hold – or are reading online – where we can keep up with what’s happening in our beloved hometown (and work the Sudoku, something I look forward to each day). I started reading the “top stories” in the news app on my phone. For several weeks, I layered the misery of my prolonged illness with global disaster and the madness of the daily headlines. My physical suffering was exacerbated by dire reports of climate change, the coronavirus, the Australian wildfires, and the plight of Syrian refugees.
The very nature of daily news distorts our view of the world because the best things in life aren’t grown or built in a day, putting many of life’s most real successes out of sync with the news cycle. But bad things can happen quickly and we rarely have enough time to process one upsetting story before we’re inundated with another. We click from story to story with only surface level emotional connectedness to each headline. Further, research indicates that people are more likely to click on headlines about plagues, divorces, terrorism, war, crime, oppression, and death than they are to click through to uplifting stories about cancer survivors and dogs that are best friends with dolphins. It makes staying up with “breaking news” a recipe for a bad day.
Read enough news, and it becomes hard to differentiate between a bad day and a bad life. I noticed I was worried about our president’s state of mind, about Kobe Bryant’s family, about humanity, about Mother Earth. There’s a fine line between staying informed and protecting our mental health. It quickly became apparent that, for my mental health, I needed to set down my phone. So I blocked all news channels in my phone settings.
But the what ifs had pitched a tent in my mind. I noticed more fear and foreboding tiptoeing through my thoughts.
What if my Mexico yoga retreat gets cancelled because of the coronavirus?
What if there’s another economic recession?
What if Kim Jong Un wakes up in a bad mood?
I what iffed each worry to its most dire imaginative conclusion.
But what if is pure speculation, a story that our mind writes. And, most times, it’s a horror story, full of murder, mayhem, and the worst case scenarios. What if tells us that the world is both unsafe and unpredictable.
When worry takes over, it can be helpful to switch from what if to what is. What if depletes us because we will never know – can never know – how things will turn out. Neuroscience indicates that only 8.6% of our worries actually come true. That means that over 90% of our horror stories are just false alarms. With fortune telling off the table, all we can know is what is true in this moment. What is defines our actual experience as it’s happening now. What if tells our story of the experience, with all of our opinions, beliefs, memories, judgments, and fears clouding reality. What is shifts us from fearful possibilities and potentials to realities. What is relies on only the things we know to be true; it brings us into the present and helps us to be more mindful about where we invest our time and energy.