Our lives are made up of stories. Stories are a wonderful way to make sense out of our experiences and, as humans, we are hard-wired to receive information through stories as shared experiences. When we hear a story that resonates with us, oxytocin increases and this “feel good” hormone awakens feelings of safety, trust, compassion and empathy in us. Yes, we like stories.
But what about the stories we create when life gets messy? You know, when you’ve been triggered by a situation, a word or a deed and you find yourself feeling confused, frightened, angry or vulnerable. When we cannot make sense of a situation, our limbic, also known as our primitive brain, drives us into a stress response – our fight or flight, freeze or appease response and we make up stories. Stories end up obsessively circling in our head like the holiday train under the tree, never ending and going nowhere.
Remember the last time a loved one was seriously late without a call or contact, most of us imagine a terrible accident or another situation with the worst possible outcome, only to later learn all was fine. The hours of anguish were real but the story we told ourselves was not. We create these stories because our brains don’t like a vacuum.
When facts are missing we fill the gaps by pulling from past experiences, memories or some other habitual rumination of the negative. Yes, most of us, we go to the dark side. Tara Brach, Ph.D, psychologist, author and teacher of meditation explains why. “Our brains are designed to scan for trouble and fixate on what might go wrong in any given situation. This is described as the negativity bias and it’s one of our hard wired survival strategies. Of course, it is a very good strategy for avoiding real danger. But, in the absence of a true threat, it limits our capacity for enjoying, and celebrating our moments.”
The words “in absence of a true threat” jump off the page. For most of us, we no longer live with true threats but often find ourselves feeding irrational fears when we don’t have all the information at hand. We assume the worst and/or assume more than what is. Tibetan teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche coined the phrase Real but Not True and reminds us that while thoughts are really happening and there is real biochemistry involved, they are only representations in our mind, not what is actually happening in this moment. It’s the same for Feelings Aren’t Facts. You might actually feel panic about crashing during plane travel but facts tell us cars are far more dangerous.
How do we counter this predisposition toward the negative and quell hours, even days of endless suffering? We can learn to change the habit. Pay attention and be mindful and when the story starts ask yourself is this thought true? Are they based on fear or love? Is there another possibility? Since negative is normal we have to be diligent, more inquisitive and consciously choose differently because more often than not, our feelings aren’t facts.