- Mental Health»
- Anxiety Disorders
The Burden of an Overactive Imagination
My brain needs an on/off switch!
Albert Einstein said, "Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere." Boy was he ever right! My imagination takes me EVERYWHERE, and often infects me with anxiety and worry.
Growing up, my overactive imagination lent itself to a unique story telling ability; a creative fashion sense; impressive artistic skill; and a knack for creating plausible excuses for my procrastination, hard headedness, and just plain defiance. But as I age, that same overactive imagination that once had nothing but redeeming qualities, has become plagued with unpleasant, anxiety and stress creating consequences. While it still benefits me in terms of creativity and uniqueness, it also swells my stress and anxieties to a point where I, on numerous occasions, have become physically ill.
I don't know when the switch was flipped, but several therapists have agreed it is a form of PTSD resulting from a somewhat serious car accident I was in over 20 years ago. While that makes sense, it's not 100% plausible to me. It seems like a cop-out. Like when I complain of back pain to my doctor, he always initially contributes it to the fact that I have scoliosis. It's just too easy. More recently, I was diagnosed with ADD, which is more creditable in my opinion. My overactive imagination is definitely fueled by my inability to focus on a single task. I often compare it to a squirrel that runs out in the middle of the road, only to dart off in twenty different directions before deciding where it really wants to go. My mind is that squirrel. But I guess the origination is neither here nor there; the fact is it is a constant struggle for me...one that has brought me to try practically every prescription anxiety medication on the market and see multiple psychologists and psychiatrists, as well as try multiple self-help techniques such as meditation that were impossible to me, as my imagination would never cooperate. If only it had an on/off switch!
How is my thought process different from most? Most people, when riding in a car along the highway, converse with the driver, take in the scenery, focus on their destination... What do I do? I imagine a deer darting in front of the car half a mile ahead and causing a chain reaction, multi-car pile-up. Most people watch a movie in which an animal is injured or killed and either have no real reaction, or reassure themselves that "it's just a movie." What do I do? I think about the military cultures that use dogs for target practice, the thousands of domestic animals that are euthanized each day in shelters, the poor rabbit I saw run under a car on my way to work... Most people get on an airplane, settle into their seat, enjoy a book or conversation with the person sitting next to them, and enjoy the flight. What do I do? I pop a few Xanax before boarding, in the hopes they will keep me calm, tighten my lap belt as much as humanly possible, clutch the arm rests to the point I loose circulation in my fingertips, and imagine a catastrophic event like a wing falling off, a bird flying into the plane's engine, a drunken pilot loosing control, or a mid-air collision.
Thankfully, in most circumstances, I know deep down in the recesses of my mind when my imagination has gotten the best of me. It's almost like my common sense battles the demon of my imagination, trying to quell it's anxiety producing spew. Sometimes my common sense's efforts are for naught, as the demon spins and churns and knocks it on it's common sense ass. But most often, after a game of cat and mouse, my common sense stands tall, takes over, and puts my overactive imagination out of it's misery.
Not long ago, I awoke in the middle of the night, from an otherwise sound sleep, with the burning fear that my husband - my young, healthy husband - lying next to me in bed was dead. I wanted to touch his skin for warmth, put my hand over his mouth to feel his breath, or poke him for a reassuring twitch or groan, but I didn’t want to wake him. Yes, I feared he was dead but I did not want to proceed with verification because I didn’t want to wake him from a sound sleep! My overactive imagination took control, as I thought about being a young widow, having to tell his dad that his son died, wondering what I would do with his belongings and whether or not I'd have to sell our home. Finally common sense regained control. I hovered my hand over his skin and could detect warmth, a sure sign of life. But, again, the demon surfaced and I thought "If he's newly dead, his skin will still be warm." So I tapped on his arm... no movement. I whispered "Are you awake?"... no response. I blew in his ear... nothing. Finally, I gave him a moderate nudge on his elbow and he pulled away from me and rolled over on his side. What a relief! He was ALIVE!
In retrospect, the scenarios created by my overactive imagination are somewhat amusing, but in the moment they are stressful, bothersome and even painful. My thoughts have stressed me to the point of physical pain before, my body becoming so tense that I've developed a recurring syndrome called Costochondritis, an inflammation of the cartilage that attaches the ribs to the breastbone often caused by anxiety. In simple terms, it feels like an elephant sitting on my chest, much like a heart attack. The symptoms alone are enough to put my overactive imagination in overdrive... "I know it's caused by anxiety, but what if this once it isn't? What if this once it's actually a heart attack?" Oh, the fight between common sense and imagination!