My husband had been experiencing sharp intermittent pains in his left ear for a few days. The pain was so sudden and strong that he would cry out, surprising both of us at all hours of the day and night. His moaning at night would wake me up.
He had an appointment the next morning with the doctor, so we didn’t have long to wait to discover what was really going on. To distract myself and him, I made up stories to explain the pain and the lump.
“Do you remember the old TV show, the Twilight Zone? There was a story about a guy who had a bug crawl in his ear and its movement in his head was torture. No one believed him, and it drove him to commit suicide. When he died, a bug crawled out of his ear. I think that’s what is going on. An earwig crawled in your ear and this lump is an egg nest. I’m not sure if the babies will crawl out your ear or if the lump will explode like a volcano.”
We both laughed and began to expand on my silly story, trying to see who could create the most outlandish scenario. Macabre humor was better than worrying about a potential brain tumor. We spent the rest of the evening expanding on our stories and laughing.
Whenever my mind would return to the fear of a brain tumor, and all the other disastrous thoughts, I would remind myself that we didn’t have any facts, other than the lump and his pain. We would know more in the morning.
The next morning as I dropped him off at the doctor’s office, I said “Text me if you need to go to the hospital for any tests. I can leave my meeting and be here in minutes. If they take any x-rays or ultrasounds, I want to make sure we get a copy of the earwig nest, so we can post it on Facebook.” He laughed and went inside.
I was glad I had a meeting to distract me, although I worried about my ability to be present. I kept reminding myself that to obsess about the worst possible outcomes was an exercise in creating Dante’s Inferno in my head.
There are times when the brain’s ability to wander is a welcome trait. When you are brainstorming ideas, day dreaming about exotic adventures, remembering positive experiences, or exploring your artistic muse. At other times, the brain’s tendency to focus on the negative can create a briar patch of razor sharp thorns that we wander through mentally.
I redirected my thoughts and remembered how easy it is to hop on that runaway train of catastrophizing, creating unhelpful emotions and pumping stress hormones through my body. I was afraid, and it was important for me to acknowledge my fear without sliding into the abyss. I sat with my fear, took deep breathes and reminded myself of the facts.
The text came an hour later. “No earwigs or bug nests. I have shingles.” When he got in the car, we hugged each other. “I’m so glad! I thought it was a brain tumor,” we said in unison and then laughed.
“Wow, shingles. That’s not fun.” “No, but it is easily treatable, I have something for the pain, and it will go away in a few weeks.” “Yes,” I said as I turned out of the parking lot. “It’s all about perspective, isn’t it!”
Are you allowing your brain to hop on a mental train to your own personal hell? How can you create a new perspective? How can you use humor to counteract your thoughts? How can you concentrate on the facts to help curtail the brain’s tendency to catastrophize?