The Anxiety of “What If”–Finding the Right Path, Getting it Perfect, and the Terror of Change

How do you know that you are on the right path in life?  I’m in college and almost done with my nursing degree, and I’m terrified that I made a really stupid decision that I’m going to be stuck with.  I’m 24 and only getting older. What if I don’t like being a nurse?  I feel like I just wasted four years and I’m panicking.

Dear Nice College Student Person,

Old?  As a 24-year-old human, you aren’t even a 3-year-old dog yet.  Just saying.

As for your almost-completion of nursing school, that’s quite an accomplishment.  Nursing degrees are tougher than most, or so my RN pals tell me, so you clearly have some brains and the ability to use them.  But, I know, that’s not actually what you are asking me about.

Nice Human, you are suffering from a malady that infects most members of your species, and, though I can teach you how to cope with it, I’m not going to be able to cure you of it completely.  This is because, while it is certainly a pain in the ass, it’s also one of the great gifts that comes with having a human brain.

I call it the What If bug.

The What If bug is a niggling little critter that has the annoying propensity to yammer, non-stop, at all hours, whenever it feels like it—which seems to be especially during times when everything else is quiet (like, say, at 11:59pm at night when you have to get up early the next day).

At it’s worst, which is what happens when it is left to its own devices, it leans really negative.

“What if you made a mistake?  Probably did.  What if you really screwed this up?  What if bad things will happen?   Because you know they will.  What if you can’t do it?  What if you are a failure?  What if they are going to disappoint you?  What if they do you wrong?  What if you do yourself wrong?  Oh, sheesh, this is going to ruin everything. What if, what if, what if…!?” 

Hmmm. Sound familiar?

When a bit of anxiety hits the brain, even just little, it sends a signal to the What If bug that it’s time for Survival Management.  The What If bug’s job is to prepare you for ruin, disaster, and calamity.  It practically plays a horror movie soundtrack while it runs a train of thoughts through your brain that all have one overarching theme: you are DOOMED.

This would be a great train of thought if you were facing down a Saber-Toothed Tiger.  That’s when this little bug was your best friend—even better than dogs (if you can believe that)!  Your ancestors survived, thanks to a brain that was programmed to be really good at listening to the What If bug.

Now, there were probably some humans who didn’t have What If bugs in their brains.  They wouldn’t be stressing out right now.  But you don’t come from them.  They ended up becoming Lunch.  They aren’t here anymore.

Point being, you come from a long lineage of humans who knew how to panic and were really good at it.  If you were facing Saber-Toothed Tigers right now, you would clearly be quite good at staying alive.  After all, look at what a great job your brain is doing with just a little bit of anxiety.  You’re a natural.

The only problem is that a nursing degree isn’t a survival-level problem.

The What If bug gets its signals crossed easily, because it reads any type of anxiety as survival-level anxiety.  But you aren’t at risk of life or death.  You are having a good kind of nervousness, one that my psychotherapist friend often calls “existential anxiety.”  She says that it makes the human ask, “What is the point of all of this?”  It involves wondering about what one actually wants versus what one is currently doing.  It’s a vague and unsettling feeling that arises for many humans whenever they embark on anything involving change.  In fact, it’s usually a signal that one is moving positively towards the direction of one’s goals!

Adult humans don’t like change.  They might think they do, but, seriously, they don’t.  If you think dogs are bad at handling change, you should watch humans some time.  The human resistance to change is literally a course of study in leadership, business, psychology, organizational management, etc.  Like, the study of how human’s pretty much always struggle with change is an actual science.

And, hey, don’t get me wrong.  The resistance to change isn’t crazy.  People don’t like change for perfectly sane reasons.  Change hits on the human’s Safety button, which triggers the Anxiety switch, which tells the What If bug to start filling the head with “Panic To Stay Alive(!)” thoughts.  All of which is cool, assuming you’ve just moved with your tribe to a new part of the jungle and you hear a Saber-Tooth Tiger growl nearby.  All it took was the sound of the growl, and your ancestors started thinking of What If’s a mile a minute, which propelled them to survival-level problem solving, which literally saved the human race.

And, yet, my dear, a nursing degree is not a Saber-Tooth Tiger.  It’s just not.

The What If bug is good, but it’s not infallible.  It needs to work on a team, not solo, when it comes to every day life stuff.  The rest of your brain will have to help the bug discern between real emergencies and simple anxieties, because on it’s own, it isn’t capable of it.  What If bug needs your help.  It’s not meant to work all by itself.

Bringing me to my main point, which is that you need to stop taking your What If bug so seriously.

Know that it has got some good questions to ask.  Know that it is a beautiful part of you that, when not panicking, helps you to plan, dream, problem-solve, evaluate, design, and more.  The What If bug can become a treasured friend, but only if you don’t let it be the Boss (except in cases of actual Saber-Tooth sightings).

Your nursing degree is a tool, a marker, and a step in the direction of responsible adulthood.  Worst case scenario: you don’t like nursing.  So what if you don’t like nursing?  You will be able to get a good job, pay off any student loan debt, and make a decent living, all while you use your What If bug to dream (now that it’s finally freed up from freaking you out).  Your What If bug will help you muse and plan about the possibilities ahead, the directions you may want to take, and the goals that you have for your future.

Being in your twenties does not constitute senior citizenship.  Which, by the way, is the age many of the world’s successful people were when they started over and began the career, organization, product, or business of their deepest heart’s desire.  You aren’t even halfway there yet, kid.

So, the next time your What If bug sounds the panic alarm, I want you to talk to it just like my psychotherapist sidekick talks to me when I’m hyper.  Like, even use a baby voice.  Which, on the one paw, I seriously hate, and yet…Oh, god, it just feels so good.

“Oh, hi there, you cute little What If bug.  My, aren’t you feeling fiesty today? Got a lot to say, don’tcha?  Do you need some attention?  There, there…it’s not a Saber-Tooth, I promise.  I’m just feeling a bit of  nervousness, but it’s totally normal.  Just means I’m making changes in my life–good changes.  But, hey, thanks for checking.  …So, listen, I’ve got work to do on this Anatomy Final.  How about you lay down right next to me and I’ll scratch your ears?”

Give it a try and let me know how it goes.  From here on out, whenever you notice it, remember that the What If bug is a Friend, not your Boss.

By the way, good luck on your last year.  You are going to be a great nurse.  And, if you decide you want to be something different, I have a feeling you’re going to do a fine job at that, too.

In closing, What If?  What If bug is your friend, if you will show it how to be a team player.  Like, What if you are on your way to getting a nursing degree, a fine profession that provides you with lots of employment options and a comfortable income?  What if the experience of getting your degree shows you that you’ve got some wonderful character traits (that you will now never have to wonder whether or not you have)—willpower, dedication, work ethic, studiousness, and perseverance, and more.  What if you have already made a smart decision to set yourself up as a young adult in the big wide world—a great start already, and a nice springboard to future professional or life goals, should you decide that you want to continue exploring your career options?  The list goes on, because, as you well know, What If never stops.

Sounds to me like you have a nice new friend.

Paw Bumps,


4 thoughts on “The Anxiety of “What If”–Finding the Right Path, Getting it Perfect, and the Terror of Change”

  1. FOMO kicks me in the butt all the time. This a great reminder that life isn’t as linear as it seems sometimes. There are many interesting forks in the road as I attend to the curious and precious process of living, and let the product be what it will be.

    1. Oh, man, that FOMO is a real thing! I didn’t address it in my column and so I’m so glad you mentioned it. Some humans experience FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and it can be tough. These types tend to be fun and adventurous, loving to jump into life in all of it’s glory. You have shared the cure: enjoy your adventurous nature and your love of exploring All The Things, but don’t forget to “attend to the curious and precious process of living” while you are out there experiencing. Thank you for sharing.

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