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Monday, June 14, 2010

Phantom Stress -- Does it Prey on You?

My five year old daughter leaned over my shoulder as I put the finishing touches on a slide presentation, her face puckered into a grimace. "Mommy," she asked, "Why do you have to show pictures of the insides of people's brains? That's gross."

I was suprised. This is my scientifically-minded child, the one who enjoys sitting in my lap and reading books on almost any science topic imaginable. Just a few days earlier I had described to her the way sound waves travel into the ear, vibrating the ear drum and arrving in the brain as encoded, neural messages. Casting around for the simplest explanation, I finally said, "I'm just trying to explain how certain thoughts get into people's minds."

"Oh," she said, looking relieved. "Well, all you have to tell them is to break their eardrums and all the thoughts will go right in."

Actually, she wasn't completely wrong. We do sometimes manufacture stressful feelings -- fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, etc -- based on the sensory information about the outside world coming in through our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc. When we see a bumblebee, memories of previous (perhaps painful) encounters with bees immediately come to mind and trigger a full-blown stress response. Sometimes this is a very good thing, because it prepares us mentally and physically to deal with present dangers.

The problem is that sometimes we create stressful thoughts and emotions when there's really nothing to be stressed about. In Stress: Beyond Coping lingo, we call this "Phantom Stress."

Phantom Stress comes from 2 sources:

  1. Getting Signals Crossed. Sometimes we misread the sensory signals coming into our minds, making a threat out of something that is not threatening at all. Do you remember, as a small child, spying a monster looming menacingly out of the shadows of a moonlit bedroom, only to realize the next moment that it was something else entirely, like a beanbag chair? That's a good example of the first kind of phantom stress. Now, how about an example more relevant for us grown-ups. I can remember times that I've gotten hurt or angry, just to find out later that I completely misread the situation. Has that ever happened to you? How much emotional stress and anxiety did you go through over it? Was it worth it?

  2. Phantom Signals. The second kind does not depend on sensory signals at all. In fact, it has nothing to do with what's going on around you right now. This kind of Phantom Stress is created in our minds as we re-live stressful events in our past, or worry about the potential stresses of the future. Let's say you've had a bad day. A REALLY bad day. Maybe even a car accident/relationship blow-up/courtroom drama kind of day. Now you're lying in bed, stewing over the day's events. Are they part of your current reality? No, they are in your past. Yet, just thinking about them is probably raising your blood pressure a little. Or perhaps you are ruminating over something coming up tomorrow, perhaps a big job interview or a court case. Is it part of your current reality? No, these events (which may or may not happen) are part of your future. And yet, you are experiencing stress over them right now.

Don't get me wrong -- it is simply part of human nature to review past events and anticipate future ones. This is part of what makes us thinking, learning, and planning human beings. But when we choose to wallow in Phantom Stress, we are constantly putting our bodies through the physiological rigors of stress when there is really nothing to be stressed about. Phantom Stress thrives in an internal milieu of past regrets and future fears, and it can eat away at our physical and mental well-being in the process.

The best way of dealing with Phantom Stress is to turn it into something positive:

  • When you and I find that we've gotten our signals crossed, our first thought should be, "What have we learned from this experience that we will not do again in the future?"

  • When past mistakes are brought to mind, we can choose to use those memories to bolster a stronger resolve to make wiser decisions in the future.

  • And instead of worrying about what may (or may not) happen tomorrow, we can choose to whole-heartedly embrace the goodness and joy found in today. After all, we will never live this day again.

I wish you the best of health.

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