Do You Suffer from Phantom Stress?
Does Your Imagination Create Phobias and Phantom Stress?
How often are your stress symptoms caused by your own mind? Your own mind is often your greatest stressor. This is especially true if you experience phobias and phantom stress reactions to life experiences.
Merriam-Webster defines a phobia as:
An extremely strong dislike or fear of someone or something
An exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation
Such exaggerated and illogical fears can become powerful stressors that produce phantom stress when you become stressed-out over something that doesn’t exist. Your stress symptoms are real and usually profoundly upsetting to you, but the cause of your stress is internal rather than external.
Keep reading to find out more about how your imagination creates stress symptoms.
Eliminate Phantom Stress
Do you ever get all stressed over nothing? Sometimes your imagination gets you stressing over all kinds of negative scenarios that could happen to you but never will. Phantom stress is the result of both electrical and chemical activity in your mind and body. Individuals with phobias experience this feeling and get caught in it.
Say you are afraid of snakes. Then you’ve probably experienced walking along and suddenly thinking you see a snake right in your path. Your reaction is virtually instantaneous. Within a millisecond, you are in the throes of your fight-or-flight response, streaming an electrochemical storm inside you.
It doesn’t have to be an insect or animal phobia, however. Similar responses can occur just walking through a crowded shopping mall and suddenly seeing (or thinking you see) someone you really don’t want to bump into. These and similar kinds of stressful reactions are often inflated and inaccurate, but they all turn on your energy-draining pipeline to full blast and cause a lot of unnecessary stress.
What’s more, when we are thinking this way, odds are we’re probably wrong in our assessment—wrong around 99 percent of the time! In fact, when you are already fearful of something, you tend to see it even when it is not there. Nature has wired us with this fuzzy circuitry for a reason.
Maybe when you were young, a one-foot-long, yellow-and-black snake almost bit you (or did). So you file the object as “dangerous snake” in an emotional memory that is very fuzzy and makes it hard to let go of stress around the incident. To see how this memory system works (and how it doesn’t), imagine making a photocopy of a picture on an old analog photocopying machine. Then imagine taking a photocopy of “the copy” and repeating that process a few times over. After a while, all distinguishing features in the photo start to disappear. In the end, you may only see some dark shading and a few lines here and there. If you were doing this with a page of print, for instance, an O would decay into what may look like a C after making a few copies of copies; you wouldn’t be able to distinguish between an L and an I. This is how your emotional memory records things—fuzzy.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, this is where nature’s genius reveals itself. Consider what would happen if evolution had given us high definition fight-or-flight memory. Say you could memorize feared objects with such high definition and specificity that you could recall the most intricate of details with absolute clarity. If this were the case and you’d previously been bitten by a one-foot-long, yellow-and-black snake, you would deposit those specific details in your memory. Then if, sometime later, you encountered a seven-foot-long, brown-colored snake with diamond shapes on its back, your highly accurate memory would give you a free pass, assuming that dangerous snakes are all one foot long and yellow and black. Your fight-or-flight response would not kick in, and you wouldn’t see and feel any stress or threat—at least not yet. However, you may be looking straight into the eyes of a diamondback rattlesnake that’s about to attack you.
[Original Post December 21, 2015]