Letting Go of the Scary Stories We Tell Ourselves

As humans, we seem to enjoy freaking ourselves out. We wear gory masks and fake blood on Halloween. We willingly enter haunted houses and watch horror films to get our adrenaline pumping. But we don’t need fake limbs or rubber spiders to scare us on a daily basis. Instead, we have a built-in accessory. It’s called the mind.

Photo credit: iStockphoto.com/Arangan_A

A story that a friend shared with me highlights what I’m talking about. As the tale goes, a young child asks his mother to imagine she is in the jungle, completely surrounded by tigers, with no weapon available and nowhere to hide.

“What would you do?” the boy asks eagerly.

The mother pauses. She imagines the scenario. Would she run? Play dead? Accept her fate as the tigers’ dinner? After pondering the question, she replies that she has no idea what she would do. Then she asks the child what he would do.

He replies, “I would stop imagining it.”

Yes, of course. I laughed at the punch line, nodding my head in agreement. But is it really that simple?

Stories we are taught to entertain

When I was in the Canadian Rockies last summer, I imagined what I would do if I came across an aggressive grizzly bear on a trail. I created a mid-August Halloween nightmare in my mind, with me dressed up as the innocent hiker. I made sure I had my I.D. in my pocket just in case someone needed to identify my body.

Although I am a girl scout dropout, I read the National Park pamphlet about what to do if I encountered a bear. I read it almost daily. Feeling prepared calmed my anxiety and felt better than lying awake at night, imagining being mauled to death.

This may sound like an exaggeration. But yes, I spent some time imagining the worst case scenario. Why?

Since my teenager years, I heard stories from my aunt about grizzly attacks in Glacier National Park in Montana, where she lived and worked as an E.R. nurse. Because of her stories, I’ve been afraid of bears for decades, and therefore afraid of hiking too far into the woods where any kind of bears might be. Because I wanted to enjoy the wilderness in Alberta, I made a choice: I stopped focusing on a tragic “what if” and refocused on what I needed one step at a time.

These internalized tales of grizzlies aren’t much different than other stories we hear from our families, friends or the media. On the daily news, we are asked to imagine what we would do if the ebola virus infects our community. Or if the drought in California continues for twenty more years and we run out of drinking water. We are told to imagine that every breast lump is cancer rather than a benign fibroid, and the fear takes over before we even see a health practitioner.

How can we stop imagining these scary stories, and also feel prepared for a potential crisis?

Becoming aware of the stories

Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) may be highly unlikely, but our mind entertains other worries. These imaginings create stress hormones that flood the cells of our bodies and drain our life force energy. Our thoughts can get carried away and the emotion of fear can become embodied and real in no time.

The first step is becoming aware of when we are creating our version of hungry tigers.

When we feel scared, overwhelmed, fearful, urgent or panicked, we can give ourselves a deep breath and pause for a moment. We can witness where our mind is focused. As the young boy suggests, we have a choice. Do we want to continue imagining we are about to be eaten by tigers? Or do we want to return to the present and have a reality check of our current situation?

When we find ways to cultivate inner peace and calm – regardless of external circumstances – we can let go of imagining the worst case scenario. Instead, we can begin trusting that we can handle whatever comes our way. While we can’t be armed with a premeditated response to every situation, we can be prepared by learning how to trust our inner guidance and intuition. We can learn to ground ourselves in the calmness of this moment. We can tap into the present and take it breath by breath.

Luckily, the mind is the generator of fear AND the antidote to fear. I love this about the mind because it means we have choice. We can choose our thoughts, which then affect our emotional and mental states. We can focus on the worst case scenario, or we can focus on the present moment and stop imagining things we’re afraid of happening in the future. If we still choose to play out different scenarios in our minds, they can be ones that benefit us and relax our nervous systems.

Is there a slight chance our imagined stories might happen? Sure. But is it helpful to create stress in our bodies and scare ourselves by imagining they will become our reality? There are healthier ways to get the heart pounding.

Deciding to be discerning

I use my grizzly example because “stop imagining it” seems easy to do with imaginary tigers who will never harm us. But more often, we need to differentiate between scary thoughts that are highly unlikely and those that have taken over because they are in the range of possibility.

In fact, I was grateful that I had read the pamphlet about encountering a bear because I actually came within 50 feet of a grizzly in Banff National Park. I was prepared to speak loudly in a calm voice and not run (and yes, my can of bear “pepper spray” added a sense of security, whether it would have helped me or not). I’m also grateful I didn’t spend much time imagining I’d be eaten alive or I would have been too paralyzed to experience the tremendous beauty of miles of mountain trails. I felt empowered rather than helpless.

“Stop imagining it” doesn’t mean avoidance or denial or that we stop being proactive and prepared for how life unfolds. But it does mean becoming aware of runaway thoughts and stopping them in their tracks.

If you will not be surrounded by tigers, stop imagining that you might be. If there is a chance you will meet a bear, imagine what you would do based on real knowledge – but only if you plan to hike in the woods where bears live, not if you are always in the city or home watching TV. If you are having health procedures to diagnosis physical symptoms, imagine who you might reach out to for support, rather than imagining how you will tell your friends and family that cancer has taken over your body before you even get a check up.

We do face real crisis in our lives. That is undeniable. But we also freak ourselves out unnecessarily, as if it has become a favorite pastime. The good news is we walk into the haunted houses of our minds voluntarily. Which means that – once we notice we are there – we can walk out voluntarily too.

May we encourage one another to imagine whatever brings us peace of mind.

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Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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8 thoughts on “Letting Go of the Scary Stories We Tell Ourselves

  1. Jen,

    Wow, thank you so much! This was a wonderful article with amusement and a healthy dose of reality. Yes! This is the perfect time of year to be aware of the haunted houses we choose to go in, how long we stay, and then, like all the kids, we get to LEAVE. I love it! As I read it I was thinking how glad I am that you are sharing your voice with us all. This is very illuminating!

    • Thanks! You bring up a great point – “how long we stay.” So great that we get to choose that too. As long as we remember we can leave when we’re ready, we don’t have to continue exploring every possible dark corner and get more and more scared.

  2. Love this post, Jen!
    Here’s a trick I use. Let’s say I’m on a flight, and there is suddenly really bad turbulence. Instead of getting into worry mode (“What if we crash?!”), I imagine myself arriving at the destination airport, then going to where I am headed, greeting my friends and loved ones. Works like a charm.

    • Yes, that’s a great way to shift things – by envisioning what you would like to experience. Thoughts are powerful!

  3. Yes, how empowering to realize we have freedom to choose – both internally in our minds and hearts, and externally in our actions. Past does not have to be future – each moment a fresh opportunity…

    By the way, in Banff with the grizzly, it seems that you were prepared to speak loudly, but found it unnecessary, yes? I too was within 50 feet of a silverback male grizzly in Glacier National Park many years ago. We each calmly held our ground. I chose to speak calmly and gently to the bear, and after maybe five minutes, the bear turned and ambled away. Having met many bears over the years (mostly black bears though) they have always minded their own business. (Of course, I keep a clean camp, and also am scrupulously fragrance-free.) Also, four years ago I surprised a huge old mountain lion within 50 feet of me on California’s Lost Coast, He high-tailed it before I could utter my little gasp of awe!

    Thank you, Jen, for another insightful exploration of your inner journey and outer adventures…

    • Hi Mary,
      As for the grizzly, I did speak loudly enough for the bear to hear me so that it knew I was there (I didn’t want to surprise it if it hadn’t seen me yet), but I did speak in a calm tone. Then the bear left.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      – Jen