"Daymare" is an old-fashioned word straight out of Charles Dickens. The word is not in use much anymore, but it certainly captures the stressful aspect of frightening and worry-based visions that plague many people on a regular basis. Any parent knows this feeling well--a child is late arriving home and visions of car crashes and kidnappings appear in vivid glory. We live out the agony in our imagination and make ourselves sick with worry in the process.
Daydreams, mind wanderings, and fantasies have a powerful effect on our physical and psychological health and on our energy levels in general. They create within us emotional and physical sensations very similar to experiencing an actual event. If you have an angry-based daydream, you get the corresponding feelings of anger. If you daydream about delicious food, you start to salivate. If you fantasize about sex, you get aroused. And if you dream up some frightening catastrophe, you actually start living those emotions.
Fantasizing, for better or worse, is our own virtual-reality program. Many theorize that the mind can't readily distinguish between real and imagined events--which is why positive visualizations work so well. But the converse is also true. You can put enormous stress on your psyche and body if you regularly have a default to fear-based or worry-based daydreams.
Some amount of negative daydreaming definitely serves problem-solving, planning, and risk-assessment purposes. When you imagine failing at something, you'll probably work extra hard to avoid the imagined mistake. Or if you imagine what it might be like to be caught in a hotel fire, you'll be more likely to notice the exits on your next visit. This fear-based planning undoubtedly has evolutionary roots. Author and fellow PT blogger Todd Kashdan, PhD, writes in his book Curious?: "Prehistoric men and women who worried a lot were more likely to survive than their carefree, positive-thinking peers. Thinking negatively served as an early warning system. It triggered the brain to recognize actual and potential threats in the moment, and it also aided the brain in imagining dangerous scenarios that didn't exist. If people were prepared at all times, they were more apt to survive."
Negative daydreams can also help you confront problems as opposed to denying or repressing them. For example, if you're fired from a job or go through a bad breakup, a certain amount of your daydreams are going to be devoted to replaying and analyzing what went wrong, a process that will hopefully help you achieve a more successful outcome in the future. In that way, a certain amount of negative daydreaming is helpful and natural. It's when negative daydreams start spinning their tires, reappearing over and over offering no better conclusions or understanding that they become a problem.
Some people seem to have a propensity for anxiety-producing daydreams, and that's likely because they're anxious by nature. If you suffer from more than your fair share of fearful daydreams, you can change the pattern by first noticing when frightening visions sweep down on you. Once you're aware that you're experiencing one, you can begin to challenge it.
If you can begin to understand that your frightening fantasies are no longer helping, you can learn to change gears and try to get them out of your mind. Just because a daydream flashes into your mind doesn't mean you have to run with it until its conclusion. You can switch images or distract yourself with an activity. Simply becoming aware of negative daydreams and how they make you feel physically and psychologically can be the first step in moving away from them.
Photo: istock.com/ Sharon Dominick
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