Monsters in our head

46b81fe6d290017abe8cf4402e509ae7Wednesday evening when you were making dinner, watching a movie, doing homework or prepping your taxes I was in the midst of one of the ultimate and highest forms of misery known among modern man; I had a root canal. Yes, and as you expected, I am here to tell you it was horrible, terrible, rotten, miserable, painful, excruciating, and horrid. I'd use more words to describe it but the pain of it has made me a bit lazy and I feel that seven adjectives should give a you pretty good sense of my experience. By Thursday morning I was feeling fine-ish, no more excruciating pain. However, by Thursday evening I could no longer eat solid food and I spent  the night awake in the kind of pain that makes rational adults consider a do-it-yourself guillotine kit. Enough about my tooth pain, it is the psychological part of this event that I really wanted to share with you. I noticed at the height of my pain that I would instead of coo kind words of compassion to myself I would instead amplify the horror by asking myself the most horrid and irrational questions. I asked things like, "What if this pain never-ever-ever goes away?", "What if this lasts forever and you can never eat again?" Huh, what the heck? What kind of awful question is that?Obviously, if this pain endured I would have to see the dentist again and he would do something about it. And, actually, that is exactly what I did. This morning I went into the dentist and he addressed the pain and gave me antibiotics.

As horrid as this experience was ( and it was), it was me and that horrible line of questioning about "what if?" that got me into a totally agitated and irrational state and almost had me in tears. I had poured fuel on the fire and the results were not surprisingly hot, heated and smokey. Happily, within a few moments of asking the question I was able to assess these thoughts for their irrationality, but sometimes that can be hard to do. Sometimes our 'what-if" questions masquerade as concern, as opposed to the anxiety producing fear-monsters that they really are.  And very often we don't answer these kind of questions, seeing them as almost unanswerable and rhetorically terrifying. These kind of anxiety prompting inquiries activate a sense of hopelessness, despair and panic in us---just as they are intended to do, much like "what if that sound in the basement was a robber" or, back from childhood, "What if there is a monster under my bed?".

The best thing to do with, "what if this horrible thing happens?" questions is to not leave them dangling in your mind but to answer them squarely. "Okay, so what if that terrible thing really does happen? Let me give you an answer to that question, if this terrible thing were to happen then there would be a series of things I could do,"  I gently soothed the fear, "if there is a monster under the bed we could scream for our parents, call 911, ask for help, see a dentist, phone a friend--something can be done." Something about coming up with a plan calms the fear-monster, even though the plan is far from detailed. And then I remind myself that I have imagined monsters many times before and they have never never realized, they have never been under the bed when the morning comes. With a simple plan of action the monsters were now out of my head.