Your imagination is sometimes your worst enemy in the fight against workplace stress

At work, imagination can be both a blessing and a curse. It fuels innovation, but also produces the ability to imagine many situations and problems that don’t yet exist—and probably never will. How much of the stress people feel at work is directly due to imaginary scenarios? More than you think.

Many of the thoughts that run around in people’s heads go like this: “This is going to be a mess. I can just imagine how painful it will be too. Right, let’s consider how to deal with it. If that happens, I’ll do this. But if this other thing happens, then I could do that or that.” This isn’t planning, it’s anticipation of imaginary hurt, driven by anxiety and fear. Such thoughts stir up emotions that your mind treats as real, adding to your stress in advance of any genuine problems. You can, literally, worry yourself into burnout based on nothing but imagined difficulties.

How your fearful mind works

Suppose Jenny has her annual appraisal meeting next day—that pointless and destructive ritual so beloved by organizations who ought to know better. She’s feeling a nervous. Like most people, her work over the past year has been uneven: sometimes excellent, mostly acceptable, and occasionally downright bad. She also knows her next salary raise will depend on the overall rating her boss gives her.

As she lies awake that night, she’s thinking something like this: “If my boss brings up that time I had a row with Barry in Accounts, I’ll remind her that he started it. Besides, what he wanted to do was crazy; and everyone knows Barry’s a bully. I could always remind her how much work I won on the Edmonds account. That should be more than enough to offset the odd spat with some accounts nerd. . . . I’ll bet she’s forgotten the time I saved her bacon in the meeting with the COO. She never remembers anything that reflects badly on her, but I ought to get credit for that. . . . If she doesn’t bring it up, I will. Graham is always telling me I don’t stand up for myself enough. This time I’ll prove him wrong.” Every imagined situation feels real enough to bring up the feelings that would be there if it truly happened.

And so it goes: a series of possible events, followed by a rough outline of a response if that particular event occurs—plus all the feelings that go with it. It doesn’t even have to be something as important as an appraisal meeting.

Every day, millions of commuters drive into major cities, their heads spinning with an internal dialog on what they’ll do if the traffic’s snarled-up on Broadway, or the bridge is still closed, or those roadworks on Alvernon aren’t finished yet.

Maybe 40 or 50 percent of our thoughts in the course of a normal day are of the kind that uses imagination to anticipate a range of events and imagine how to deal with each one in turn. No wonder people say “I knew that would happen!” They didn’t know; it was just one of many scores—even hundreds —of potential outcomes they imagined before and fretted about to no purpose.

Your mind treats imaginary emotions as real ones

All this may sound normal and unimportant, but it isn’t. When you think this way, you prime your mind with synthetic emotions and pre-set responses—neither of which take any account of the circumstances you’ll actually find when action is needed. Worse, you’ll be stirring up real emotions, based on nothing more than your fears and insecurities. By rehearsing these dreamed-up feelings—and preparing a response based on them—you’re making yourself anxious now and readying yourself to say or do something that may be wildly inappropriate when the time comes.

Just like the situations your mind conjures up, these emotions are, strictly speaking, imaginary. They have no basis beyond your anxieties and fears. But your brain doesn’t recognize this. They’re completely real so far as your body and mind are concerned.

If you stir up fear, anger, or anxiety in this way, your body will respond by secreting the “fight or flight” chemicals that churn your stomach, raise your blood-pressure, and build harmful stress. By going over and over the situation again and again in your mind, constantly imagining what might happen and how you might respond, you keep those body chemicals flowing way longer than Nature ever intended. It’s a quick route to all the diseases that flow from chronic stress.

The way out

If you find this happening, here’s the way out:

  • Stop. Let go of all the imaginary scenarios and emotions. They won’t help deal with the problem and they’re hurting you into the bargain.
  • Take some quiet time to think about the real situation. Why are you anxious? Is there anything you can or should be doing about it now? If there is, do it. If not, forget about it until the time comes.
  • If you find yourself returning to the anticipation and worrying, note what’s going on in your head and let it go again. However often it comes back into your mind, simply note what’s happened and let it all go. Never mind if you have to do this 100 times or 1000. Let it go and move on to something else.
  • Patience is worth more than any number of pointless imaginings. If immediate action isn’t essential, do nothing until you’ve had quiet time to think.
  • Never act on emotion alone. When the time for action comes, be as objective as you can. Always try to get past any emotion to the reality.
  • Once there’s nothing more you can do, put the matter out of your mind. Whatever the outcome—good, bad, or anywhere in between—note it and let it go. It’s over. Learn what you can, then put it gently into the “file closed” part of your memory.
  • Never waste time going back over situations and imagining what you should have said or done. You didn’t. You can’t change anything by worrying or stirring up dead emotions.

If your head is full of imagined scenarios, options, and their attending emotions, there’ll be no room for reality. You won’t ever deal with the actual problems or people—just the stories you’ve made up about them in advance. Deal with problems when they happen, not when they’re mere imaginings. If you can act, act. If you can plan in a rational way for something likely to happen, do so. For the rest, let it all go. Ignore it. There’s true freedom from stress and inner peacefulness in that.

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