Help me remember ghosts aren’t real.
February 22, 2018 3:38 AM   Subscribe

This is an odd ask, but I don’t know where/how to ask it and I need help ASAP. I have a supersition/fear that isn’t real and I have to face it in the next hour or so. Probably part trauma/ptsd, and part getting worked up by friends who are superstitious.

I know ghosts aren’t real, but had an experience late last night that shook me up. For some background: My husband commited suicide a little over a year ago. I probably have ptsd or something similar, as certain things tigger a severe fight or flight reaction in me since his death. I will see things that aren’t there, jump at objects and noises that are mundane, see sillhouttes of people in objects that aren’t people (say a road sign or tree stump).

This was nearly daily immediately after his death, but tapered off after a few months to only happening a few times a week, to a couple times a month, to only occasionally now. My therapist attributed it to trauma and said it’s pretty common, will hopefully work itself out as everything else has. But it still can be triggered.

One of the triggers is my old house, the house I lived in with my husband. I moved out two months after he took his life. But most of the time when I went back to the house, I would get hit with a ton of anxiety at some point, and that would trigger this and I’d have to leave in a hurry.

I chalked it up to anxiety and fight or flight. However, I have some friends that are superstitious, and they felt there was a “bad energy” in the house, also feeling that is what I feel when I have these episodes. I don’t believe that, I’m an atheist and think the idea of ghosts or any continued existance after death is silly, and so at first I humored their ideas. But unfortunately, regardless of what I believe, it got to me. I still don’t believe what they’re saying, but a part of my brain is now more fearful because of this. I’m one of those people that can’t watch horror films because I get freaked out for days. Obviously I don’t think the girl from The Ring (last horror movie I watched) is coming for me. But it will keep me up at night, possibly several.

So getting to what freaked me out. I was at the house late last night doing some work because I have to get a few things taken care of before an appointment at the house today. When I was getting ready to leave, the electric garage door wasn’t working, like it had no power. I’ve had contractors in and out, so idk if someone did something to turn it off... I checked the circuit breaker, and looked at the unit, couldn’t remember if it was plug in or direct wire, but it was direct wire. This amped my anxiety and frustration up. I could see no reason for it to not have power.

I walked in the house, and the upstairs seemed to be filled with a hazy white smoke. Except it wasn’t. This is important, because one of the friends that has talked about feeling a bad energy (ghost) at the house, described it like a smoke you could see but not really. As has he said that’s happened to him in other circumstances.

My first instinct was to look more closely because I was understandable afraid there was a fire. But when I focused more, there was no smoke. I went upstairs where I saw it to check anyway; but there wasnt, except I’d turn my head and sorta see it again. Then I went downstairs, to also check there was no smoke there, and the same thing was happening. I looked all over for signs of fire, and there was nothing. The sense there was smoke, that things were hazy persisted. I was fairly certain I was imagining it based on what my friend had said. And yet I kept “seeing” it if I didn’t focus hard on really looking.

I was going to push through and continue to clean, but I was just too freaked out. So I determined there really wasn’t anything fire related, and I gtfo of there, tail between my legs because I was afraid and couldn’t overcome it.

I have to go back in 20 minutes, and I have to be there by myself for a couple hours. Please help me understand this, I know it’s not real, I don’t believe there is a bad energy there, but the fear is really overpowering. Tips for understanding what my mind is doing, and how to manage this morning would be appreciated. Even recounting this freaked me out. I also haven’t slept, in part because I’m worked up (but in part so I don’t oversleep). I just need to cope for a couple hours this morning and could use suggestions to do so.

(And yes I really do have to go over there, selling the house is dependent on it. I would ask someone to go with me if this all hadn’t happened around midnight, and thus finding someone on short notice and dragging them out of bed isn’t going to happen.)
posted by [insert clever name here] to Science & Nature (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Ghosts aren't real. Remember that no less than Harry Houdini swore that he would find a way back to talk to his beloved wife, and never managed to even make a candle go out. Also, there's a society of skeptics that has debunked so many ghostly tales. *None* of them hold up. They've done everything from "haunted" houses to "posessed" items.

Do you have a dog you can bring with you? It can be a comfort to see an animal sleeping or just being an animal when one is worried about something.

Also, drag someone out of bed. You don't have to tell them the whole truth if you don't want to, just tell them that you don't want to do this thing alone. They will understand. I'm sorry you have this to think about on top of everything else. Hang in there.
posted by machinecraig at 3:48 AM on February 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Can you focus on some specific happy memories you have of that house and bring those to mind every time your brain drifts back to thinking about fear?

I find that when I'm afraid of things, trying to tell myself not to be afraid is always counterproductive; what works better is saying "okay, self, you're afraid even though it's irrational. However, you also feel other things, like this and this and this." It doesn't always 100% defuse the fear but it is very good at limiting it.
posted by Catseye at 3:48 AM on February 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry you are going through this.

When I'm tired, or sometimes even just randomly, my vision can get a little blurry. Maybe yours was too, but you're interpreting the effect as a haze, due to the power of suggestion. Blinking or focusing directly on one thing can help clear it, but the blur will often return if I stop actively focusing my eyes. That tracks with what you described. It could be something that happens to you at other times, but you typically don't notice because you are not usually this hyper-aware or prepped to notice anything unusual.
posted by prewar lemonade at 3:52 AM on February 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also, consider asking your friends to kindly stfu about "bad energy" or ghost talk to you. Whatever they see or feel in the house, they can describe to literally anyone else. You don't need to hear it.
posted by prewar lemonade at 3:56 AM on February 22, 2018 [54 favorites]

Sorry so many comments! I missed the edit window. Just wanted to add that the vision blur I experience is sometimes set off by dust, or changes in light strength or air temperature, which might explain why you experienced what you did on one floor and not another.
posted by prewar lemonade at 4:01 AM on February 22, 2018

Sleep deprivation, stress and trauma can all lead to minor sensory hallucinations. You're amped up and scared so your system is pumping adrenaline to keep you awake and prepped for emergency action. Your frontal lobe has taken a back seat as the rest of your brain says "We need to react quickly, on impulse, and we can't do that if we're all cool logic!" You're primed by your friend's story about the white haze so now your brain is pattern matching ordinary sensory input.

+ Invoke the power of the mammalian diving reflex — breathe deep and slow.
+ Try tapping when you feel anxious — soothing repetitive touches are calming.
+ Do you have an amulet or good luck charm you can wear? Lucky shirt?
+ Tuck a pocket knife in your jeans. Wear shoes with good tread.
+ When you get to the house, turn on all the lights from top to bottom.
+ Load some cat pics on your phone. Distract yourself with cuteness!
+ How about some fun music. Radio? Podcasts?

It's okay to phone a friend. I was awake for 72 hours once, I started getting flickery visions and paranoia which made me too scared to sleep. I carried a butcher knife around my own house for chrissakes. I knew nothing was wrong but I couldn't get past the fear. I called a friend over in the middle of the night. He literally sat by my side and read a book while I collapsed in exhaustion. I woke three hours later and, though tired, was back in control.
posted by fritillary at 4:06 AM on February 22, 2018 [25 favorites]

Play some live talk radio while you’re there. This helped me when I was creeped out being in a house alone. Sorry you’re having to deal with this, and I’m mad at your friends for making it worse.
posted by lakeroon at 4:07 AM on February 22, 2018 [16 favorites]

I am very sorry, you have to go through this! If you can at all bring a friend, preferably one that is not superstitious and can make you laugh easily, absolutely do it. Three other ideas, to get you through the night:

1) A good method to keep anxiety in check, is to do a five senses check-in. Sit down comfortably, take a deep breath and then go through these questions and really focus on your senses:
- One thing, I can taste
- Two things, I can smell
- Three things I can hear (even if it is very quiet, think street noises, own breath, etc.)
- Four things, I can feel (how your body touches the chair, the clothing on your skins, etc.)
- Five things, I can see (focus on very specific things, like the color of the curtains)

2) Own the space and power through. Put on as many lights as possible, make it really bright, play loud, up-beat music and dance through the rooms.

3) Allow yourself to engage with your feelings and the superstition behind it. It might be silly but it can help to play with it...think of it as therapeutic enactment. Bring a smudging stick and go through the rooms, smoking out all corners, put turmeric and rosemary oil on your body, tell any spirits that you ask them to please leave and that you wish them farewell. Or you could combine this with the idea from number two: you can tell the spirits that they are welcome to the party, if they want to dance but they cannot scare you or you will spritz them with holy water. No need to be all serious here or adhere to any strict rituals, we don't believe in this stuff anyway ;)

Anyway, good luck!
posted by Fallbala at 4:10 AM on February 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

Dry air, dust, and crying can all dry your eyes out and make it look like things are a bit hazy and smoky. There is nothing spooky going on there, your eyes have just gotten a bit gummy. You can do this.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:11 AM on February 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ghosts, aliens, unfamiliar phone numbers, just try and remember they might not have to be evil.
posted by InkaLomax at 4:20 AM on February 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry you're dealing with this. I'm not superstitious in the least and my brain still will purposefully "see" things to scare me in my own damn apartment in the worst what if anxiety moments.

I had to deal with this a few nights ago. Things that help:
1. Lots of lights
2. Music, radio, podcasts you like
3. (This might sound silly, but) mentally visualizing an animal I like that will "chase" things off -- this also helps when having to turn off the lights

And I agree, tell your friends to knock it the hell out. It's not helping you, and knowing what happened in the house it's absolutely rude and insensitive.
posted by lesser weasel at 4:21 AM on February 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

You probably know this, but "When an individual tries to suppress thoughts under a high cognitive load, the frequency of those thoughts increases and becomes more accessible than before." I'm also pretty sure stress and sleep deprivation and whatnot either increase cognitive load or reduce capacity, so you're even more susceptible.

You might try turning it around to your advantage, e.g. whatever you do, don't think of your dream vacation. Don't think of good food. Don't think of your favorite book. Don't think of all the people on Metafilter who cared about your question. Etc.
posted by Wobbuffet at 4:29 AM on February 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

One night, years ago, I was alone in a large apartment for the first time in months. I couldn’t sleep because I was scared of... I don’t even know what, possibly ghosts, possibly intruders, I was just scared. I eventually screwed up the courage to go from room to room, turning the lights on and saying “Hey! Anybody there?” out loud. It really helped. Especially because my first impulse when I’m afraid is to freeze and retreat, and being loud and confrontational - even when facing nothing - broke through that.

You could try talking out loud like that during your visit - either to any ghosts, or to the house in general, or just continually narrating your presence. If you’re alone, it’s hard to feel self-conscious about it. Making noise and providing yourself with distraction in general helps.

Emotions often don’t listen to reason; it’s often better to work with the fear as fear itself, rather than attempting to convince yourself it shouldn’t exist. Pull out whatever magical thinking helps you. There’s a reason monster repellent sprays for kids are a thing: it gives them power over the darkness under the bed, the fear that is real even though the monster is not. It works for grown-ups too.

Also, everyone reading your question and providing answers wants this morning to go well for you. We aren’t there, but we are certainly real. If it helps you can imagine my invisible internet-friend self wandering your house saying “hey, knock it off” to the dusty corners.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:48 AM on February 22, 2018 [13 favorites]

This will either make things better, or make them worse, but I would recommend playing the song from “Ghostbusters” as loudly as possible. Just so it’s not quiet, and so you can say “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” over and over again. It may help.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:58 AM on February 22, 2018 [9 favorites]

I'm sorry you're dealing with this. Your anxiety, memories of past trauma, and poor sleep are combining to make things very difficult for you. That bad energy you feel, those are your emotions. Buildings don't have feelings. The only sentient thing in that house is you, and the only emotions you're feeling and reacting to are your own. You're sad. Of course you feel surrounded by sadness. I don't know how to best phrase that - certainly not that it is your fault - I don't mean to suggest that - but that it's very, very natural for you to feel frightened and sad when you are dealing with so many big, difficult emotions.

It's so hard when your mind plays tricks on you. As a sufferer of OCD and anxiety I know how it feels when something seems so real but it genuinely is all in your head. I just really feel for you. Whenever I get in a bad obsessive thought cycle it helps for me to tell myself, "Hey! This is an obsessive thought cycle! The thing I'm worrying about does not exist! It isn't real!" Naming the thing that's happening can help create some distance from the feelings before they overwhelm you.

Switch on the radio. Switch on all the lights. Sing. Distract yourself. Remember, if the negative feeling gets too strong, that, as Metroid Baby said above, you have dozens of online well-wishers hoping you have an okay morning. Wishing you strength and peace.
posted by Ziggy500 at 5:13 AM on February 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Things occasionally look hazy to me, like there's faint smoke or fog where there is none, when my adrenaline is pumping. If I'm especially anxious or stressed it is not unusual for me to have to double check a room in my house to truly confirm that there's no fire. It passes, but it is a very physical symptom of anxiety (or low blood sugar, or low blood pressure) for me.
posted by lydhre at 5:44 AM on February 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

my dad used to tell me that if all the ghosts in the world got together they wouldn't be able to make a green salad (i got spooked pretty easy as a kid) and it makes me laugh, since its true. you hear about bad spirits etc. but they're really not of much consequence. really more just an extension of anxiety etc.

so. take a big breath, play some good music and go forth and kick butt ❤
posted by speakeasy at 5:45 AM on February 22, 2018 [8 favorites]

While you won't rationally buy into it, you could also try smudging the house with sage. That way if you have those flashes of irrational fears, you can bring yourself back to the physical memory of actively getting rid of it. It would be less about the spiritual aspects of smudging and more taking control. There can't be anything to be afraid of if you have "cleansed" the space.

+1 to all who have mention music / background noise as a great way to distract as well. Silence can be hell in these situations. Another option is to also make sure the space smells homey and comforting to you.

Tell your friends to shush when it comes to the creepy stuff. Best of luck!
posted by MandaSayGrr at 6:31 AM on February 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

This may be too late for you now, but if you have to go back again, or for others with similar concerns: I suspect one contributing factor was that you were there at night. People tend to be more easily spooked at night. Maybe it's the darkness, maybe it's lowered metabolism (even if you're awake, your metabolism tends to slow at night), who knows, but it's definitely the case. My guess is that you won't feel as nervous being there during daylight hours. If you need to go back again, make sure you do it when it's light out.

I don't believe in ghosts either, but I saw a documentary several years ago who gathers and re-tells ghost stories from the southern US. One of her comments from the movie has stuck with me, and may help (as nearly as I can remember): "I've collected hundreds of ghost stories from all over the South, and only two where the ghost was malicious. That's a better percentage than you get with the living."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:33 AM on February 22, 2018 [9 favorites]

During high-stress periods, I'll have thoughts like this. It's as of my brain is capable of producing it's own horror movie, staring me and irrational fears!

I know that for me, the HorrorMovieThoughts are caused by combination of trauma and OCD and while I'm somewhat fuzzy on the theory, the distress I feel has more to do the conflict between my personal beliefs and whatever crap my mind is projecting. Like, if I really believed a place was haunted, my response would be very different from the battleground where my RealitySelf is fighting with HorrorMovieThoughts in a stress inducing environment.

Once I cued into the source of conflict (battle of the brain) instead of the specific fears, I was able to counter the HorrorMovieThoughts that plagued me since early childhood. I *think* I counter this using some variation of ACT (acceptance & commitment therapy), but my understanding of the theroy is fuzzy because I was never formally treated.

What I do to cope with this is two-fold:

Since I'm essentially arguing with myself over "what's really real" reassurance from other people generally isn't going to make me feel better. While it's ok to get other people's opinion/confirmation about what they're seeing (once), trying to use them to assuage my doubt just adds them to the battleground of my mind.

My next step is to articulate and exaggerate the fears outloud, mocking them in a way that sounds incredibly exaggerated. I'll share these thoughts with people around me who know how to go along with it and the idea (even if it still feels real) becomes so silly & I'm no longer arguing with myself. I keep going back to that while doing what I have to.

Since I don't want to feed into your fears, I'm not going to give an example using any of my HorrorMovieThoughts. I can however give an example of a minor issue I'm experiencing, if you feel like that'd be useful.

I'm sorry you're going through this and wish you the best of luck today.
posted by bindr at 7:05 AM on February 22, 2018

How about wearing a crucifix or burning some sage or sprinkling some salt or something to trick your brain? You can even say out loud to yourself "believing in ghosts is stupid and I'm just doing this to remind myself how stupid this all is".
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:19 AM on February 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you're even somewhat religious, you can say the Guardian Angel prayer. Ghosts are no match for a good Angel at your side.
posted by Fukiyama at 7:44 AM on February 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone, I survived the morning. I went an hour later than I should have, also figuring that night time was complicating the mix. I arrived as it was getting light and though I had to hustle, got enough done that I think it’s okay. Also blasted some fun music. I “saw” the haze again, pretty sure it’s because the house colors are weirdly bright neutrals, and my I have 18 years of memories of darker decor. Even after becoming aware that seemed to be what was going on, it still happened. (Being sleep deprived is undoubtedly playing a role) I also took a friend’s crystals (at his urging) and placed them where he suggested. And used one to “clear the room” which involved a bastardized version of what my friend said to say, ending in, “so you can fuck the fuck off.” As pointed out here, there was something calming about it. I’m sure the same would have worked, no crystal or other magic talisman, but it was the piece that got me to do it.

And my friends don’t deserve the blame here; I asked them to share. First to lovingly scoff, then later because all this has found me pondering spirituality from a ritual side. For instance, one of these friends insisted on smudging the place a few months back. I didn’t mind, but thought it was silly. Instead I found the whole affair surprisingly comforting. Unfortunately, by inviting the commentary of what he and others thought they felt, some of that had obviously wormed its way into my brain. I had similar reactions before anyone told me they sensed “bad energy”, because it is just fear and anxiety. But this gave my mind something to hold on to.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 8:20 AM on February 22, 2018 [9 favorites]

I chalked it up to anxiety and fight or flight. However, I have some friends that are superstitious, and they felt there was a “bad energy” in the house, also feeling that is what I feel when I have these episodes.

"Bad energy" is just how people who speak fluent woo pronounce "triggers for traumatic memories". And you can tell that this is the case, because the only places that any of these folks ever report experiencing "bad energy" are places where they already believe that something traumatic has happened, or places reminiscent of other such places.

So really all this boils down to is you and your superstitious friends using different words to describe the same objective conditions.

one of the friends that has talked about feeling a bad energy (ghost) at the house, described it like a smoke you could see but not really. As has he said that’s happened to him in other circumstances.

Assorted kinds of visual disturbance are a fairly common consequence of adrenalin rushes, so once again you and your friends are just using different words to describe shared experiences, but they have the causality backwards. The vaguely perceptible haze is caused by feeling freaked out, not the other way round.
posted by flabdablet at 9:12 AM on February 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

Do you have a working carbon monoxide detector?

Gas and oil furnaces, gas water heaters, gas stoves, wood fireplaces, wood stoves, etc. all generate carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause hallucinations and a feeling of dread/despair. It has been found to be the real cause of many "haunted" house experiences.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:25 AM on February 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

During the times that you're unable to logically convince yourself about about your belief that such things do not exist, such as when seeing haze/smoke, would it be possible for both you and your friends to reframe it positively? As in, it's a "good energy," perhaps of the protective variety or something along those lines?
My children are often afriad of "ghosts" and the most helpful thing for them seems for me to not negate their beliefs, fears, and experinces, but to remind them that if there was such a thing, it would not possess any physical atributes and therefore it would be impossible to be harmed by it. Telling them to ask "it" to simply leave/go away etc. and reminding them that any intruders upon their personal sense of safety and well being are unwelcome and thus must respect their space, seems to empower them enough to negate their fears about such beliefs.
It's worth a try. Logic doesn't always convince the imagination.
posted by OnefortheLast at 12:35 PM on February 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Seconding OnefortheLast's suggestion above about reframing your attitude about ghosts (as a general future tip, that is). There's a sweet kids' graphic novel about this called Ghosts, with a pair of sisters who move to a town that's got some haunted houses. The bigger sister is afraid of ghosts, but the little sister - who has cystic fibrosis - is fascinated and wants to meet them. And the turning point is when the younger sister challenges the older - "when I die and come back as a ghost, are you going to be afraid of me too?"

Maybe it's not bad energy after all. Maybe it's just sad energy, from people who miss you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:46 PM on February 22, 2018 [6 favorites]

I feel your pain. I am 40 years old and still afraid of the dark in my childhood home. For future reference, another commenter's suggestion of live talk radio works for me. I also arrange to have a friend on speed dial if needed--just knowing that I could wake them up at 2 am keeps me from actually having to do it. I have also cut my consumption of ghost-related media down to zero. And if someone mentions ghosts, even in passing, I say "stop it, I'm not kidding, I'm afraid of ghosts." Fortunately, I live in apartments now, which my mind has decided are places where ghosts don't hang out.
posted by 8603 at 8:19 PM on February 22, 2018

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