How often do you reflect on the things you do right? I don’t mean something like recycling, I’m talking about tricks or habits you instinctively do when faced with an obstacle. Have you ever wondered why your tactics work? What about when, or where, you learned them? It’s okay if you don’t know. We rarely question when things go well and tend to pay more attention to what’s not working.
But I was recently reminded of a fear I had as a child, and being the introspective person I am, I found myself curious about how I overcame it. That’s when I realized I still use the same tactics today when forced into facing fears or finding courage, I just never considered the source of my knowledge or what it means.
Before I get into the story, you should know that I was scared all the time as a child. More than once a night I’d work myself into hysterics over imaginary catastrophes. The most popular being either our house burning down or an intruder in the middle of the night.
Both fears seem reasonable and have a rational solution for overcoming them. For me, making sure the stove was off and the doors and windows were locked before going to sleep went a long way in keeping my panic attacks to a minimum. But there was another fear looming. One which appeared less reasonable to entertain because it only existed in my mind.
The staircase leading to the basement in my childhood home is the kind with a switchback. You walk down six stairs to a landing with the backdoor, then switch direction to go down another six steps to reach the basement.
If you look, you’d see the sidewall is missing from the second step down after bypassing the backdoor. A black hole peeking into the space below the landing you just walked on. There, in the darkness of forgotten space, lived two monsters.
One of them was grotesque and slimy like a slug, with beady bloodshot eyes and no hands. Though his brain made up for any physical limitations. He was a bully, manipulative, and his sole goal in life was collecting little girl’s feet. What did he do with them? Thankfully, I never found out.
The other monster was long and boney with sharp pointy fingers, perfect for snatching little girls' ankles. He was agile, quick, and had impressive reflexes. But his short attention span and inability to follow directions lead to many mistakes and missed opportunities.
I sensed their presence during my entire childhood and avoided the basement as a result. Though growing up in a family of six meant I’d inevitably be forced to use the bathroom down there, when the one on the main floor was occupied.
With tears falling down my cheeks I’d beg my parents to force my brothers out of the ‘regular’ bathroom. It never worked. Instead, they’d tell me to be brave and sent me on my way with a distracted reminder that nothing could touch me and nothing can hurt me.
Using every ounce of courage I could muster, I’d run down (and up) the stairs quick as a grasshopper repeating, “nothing can touch me, nothing can hurt me,” with my fight-or-flight fully engaged.
I knew the monsters were in my imagination, but that didn’t make me any less scared. They were real to me. At night, safe in my bed and two rooms away from the stairs, I’d think about them. I imagined the monsters looking at charts and measurements, building traps, and loosening boards while concocting evil plans to snatch my feet.
The boney one with sharp fingers was surely slithering around the crawlspace yammering out ideas as if hyped on caffeine. The slimy one was always annoyed and tried to ignore him while working out his own plans for my capture.
By the time I became a teenager, my storyline with the monsters was long buried, and the fear behind it grew dim until I mostly forgot about it altogether. To be honest, I don’t recall any defining moment at all. I never stuck my face in the hole or woke up with an epiphany. Instead, I slowly stopped thinking about them completely.
Anytime the memory crosses my mind I assumed growing up was the reason. Perhaps new fears grew and monsters under the stairs took a back seat as a less imminent threat. It could very well be the case, but there are a couple of other contributions.
Society doesn’t always acknowledge the fear that only exists in our minds. To an outsider, it might seem juvenile or unworthy of attention. But did you know the research shows our brain has a hard time differentiating between a real or imaginary threat — even when we consciously know the difference. This is why although my villainous monsters existed only in my mind, my fears were very real.
The University of Colorado Boulder and Icahn School of Medicine affirmed this while studying brain scans of their participants. At the end of the study, the director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, Tor Wager, concluded,
“[I]magination is a neurological reality that can impact our brains and bodies in ways that matter for our wellbeing,”
The same study discovered that when someone repeatedly imagines their fear in a safe environment, it doesn't take long before their brain stops responding to it. When I became curious and imagined different scenarios at night, the monsters became less scary. I gave them personalities, thought about new strategies — like skipping the stair altogether once I was big enough — which shifted my perspective of a threat.
Lastly, I used an affirmation. An affirmation is a positive phrase or statement a person uses to help combat unwanted thoughts. (Here’s an awesome resource to learn more about them.) As you probably guessed, mine was, “nothing can touch me, nothing can hurt me”. Of course, I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time.
It might seem like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, but affirmations work and have scientific evidence backing it up. The journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience published a study in which lead Doctoral Candidate, Christopher Cascio, explains how affirmations affect our brain,
“Affirmation takes advantage of our reward circuits, which can be quite powerful. Many studies have shown that these circuits can do things like dampen pain and help us maintain balance in the face of threats.”
Even though I was young, I remember feeling stronger — braver — while I spoke the words which is why I later developed the habit of repeating them for the duration of my basement visits and still continue to at times, even now.
When things go well, we rarely stop to wonder why, but we should. It’s great when we instinctively use tactics we’ve learned throughout life, but it’s even better when we use them intentionally. Doing so gives us more control over how we respond to various situations and provides tools we can use anytime we’re faced with an obstacle.
It’s been years since I’ve thought about my imaginary monsters, but upon reflection, I see now how often I’ve used these tools to face other fears throughout my life. It makes me wonder what other tactics I instinctively do that work…
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