It’s the Contrast Principle in effect: during the day, there are so many sounds in nature that we’re unlikely to hear a tiny mouse scurrying near our feet. But at night, with its absence of light, dull orchestra of crickets, and an imagination open wide, tiny sounds get amplified by our minds.
As we learned in my last blog post, in a tent full of scared eleven-year-old Girl Scouts at summer camp, a field mouse scurrying through the leaves = a big hungry bear searching for a late-night snack. At the right (or, well, wrong) thoughts and a tiny mouse becomes a big bear.
It doesn’t necessarily need to be dark outside for our mind to amplify the wrong message. When anxious, small things sound like big things. When sick, small things sound like big things. When depressed. When overwhelmed. When tired.
I mean, think about it: when’s the last time something small — say, washing a load of dishes — seemed like a gargantuan task? Maybe it was yesterday when your nerves were already abuzz thanks to your colicky little one screaming her head off.
Maybe it was last week — the day after your two-hour nap that masqueraded as a full night’s sleep.
Maybe it’s today. Perhaps you’re feeling sick or otherwise under the weather, and you can’t bring yourself to make that phone call or cook that dinner or fold that basket of laundry.
Those small activities are just mice. They’re tiny and harmless. But what changes them — what distorts them into bears — is our perspective. If you’re feeling less than stellar, those tasks are like a mouse at night: loud, disconcerting, and dangerous-sounding.
If you’re feeling well, on the other hand, then those tasks are simple! They’re like a mouse in the daytime: quiet, simple and innocuous.
Are you amplifying your mice?
A PANICKER GOES CAMPING
So, thanks to plenty of cognitive-behavioral therapy and a lot of motivation to return to one of my favorite childhood activities, I went camping with my husband this past weekend. We packed a cooler, packed our gear, and drove 30 minutes away to a state park that has no cell phone reception.
Of course I was nervous…but my anxiety was replaced by excitement as we set up camp. Tents! Sleeping bags! Gathering tinder! Campfires! Baking apples in the fire! I love it! I love it all!
Seriously. I loved every second of it and was more excited than I’d been in a long time.
Of course, that posed a problem at bedtime.
After my husband fell asleep next to me in our tent, I closed my eyes and listened to the music of the nighttime creatures. It was soothing, yet stimulating. I was so proud of myself and so happy to be out in the world of nature again that my heart started racing. I wanted to dance around, not sleep.
So I laid there. And laid there. And laid there…until I heard something touch the tent from the outside.
I tried to convince myself that I’d imagined it. But, nope — there it was again, scratching at the side of the tent. I laid frozen in my sleeping bag. So frozen, in fact, that I forgot to breathe. Scratch scratch scratch.
And then, my internal dialogue went something like this:
Did I really just hear that? Wait — what DID I hear? I heard something. OH MY GOD, what is that? I think it’s a bear. Wait, no. Shut up. It’s not a bear. Wait — it could be a bear. Should I shine my flashlight outside the tent to see? Nope. Oh god; there it is again. I still hear it shuffling through the leaves! AHHHH.
Sound familiar? The fears of four girls can sure feed off of one another in fifth grade at summer camp…but when you’re pushing thirty with an anxiety disorder, you don’t need friends to help you amplify your fear that a bear is waiting outside your tent for a tasty human treat. Nope. All it takes is a single overactive mind.
I poked my husband to wake him.
“Do you hear that?!?” I whispered. Scratch scratch scratch.
“Yep,” he said nonchalantly. “It’s a field mouse.”
Of course. Of course it is. Didn’t I learn anything from Girl Scout camp?
Not enough, I guess. I laid there in the tent, wakefully, until the sunrise finally lulled me to sleep.
Photo credit: Hans
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Last reviewed: 19 Aug 2012