There is only one letter different between the words “curse” and “cure”, and yet there is a world of difference in terms of our experience. In the case of our imagination, the difference is a matter of perspective and focus.
What do you think about your imagination? New clients often berate themselves for being stupid because they suffer from anxiety, a phobia or depression. They see their lack of mental health and unstable self-esteem as a weakness or a personal failing. Often, they think that they are doomed to be this way forever. They think that they just cannot change the way they are. They don’t see their struggles as being related to lack of skills training. And they certainly don’t see their anxiety as creative or imaginative!
I see it differently. I remember the first exchange I had with Rob Kelly about tackling my Emetophobia using the tools I gained through the Thrive Programme. He made a comment that really stuck with me. He said, “people who are emetophobic are rarely stupid”. In fact, he went on to say that, in his 25 years of experience, he found that most people with a phobia, anxiety, or depression are usually pretty intelligent.
Going through the Thrive Programme has built self-belief and liberated imagination in ways I would never have dreamed. My husband has even commented that I seem more creative than he had ever realized! I also witness it in my clients as their talents shine through once they are able to focus their imagination on something other than anxiety.
Sufferers are Creative
The motto of many people with anxiety/phobias is “Plan for the worst and hope for the best”. Consequently, they don’t spend much time visualizing the best outcome – a fun party with friends, a nice pleasure cruise, fun trying out water skiing. They don’t get anticipatory pleasure from a social event. They spend their time imagining what will happen if the boat is too crowded; or it catches fire; or there is a tidal wave, hurricane or an iceberg (even if they are on the River Thames in London). They contemplate cramp, hypothermia, drowning or sharks – even when they are water skiing on a lake in the middle of summer. Friends are looking forward to the fun, while those struggling with anxiety are looking forward to a laundry list of negative outcomes.
When the “Master of Horror” Stephen King writes books about these types of happenings in innocuous situations, he gets awards, makes money and movies. But for most of us, these thoughts are crazy, out of place, debilitating and leave us feeling stupid and weak. What some may not know is that Stephen King himself has had to learn to think differently, overcoming alcoholism in the 80’s and remaining sober since (read his story). Within society, a constant focus on the unlikely but dangerous can drive friends and family away.
Now, as I work with clients of my own, I am more and more impressed by how imaginative and creative they are. That may sound strange, but being able to see the potential “disaster” in a situation that to others sounds like fun – or at worst mundane – is quite imaginative. Most people with anxiety and phobias don’t just visualize ONE dangerous scenario, they can conjure up many. And all this while the rest of us are assuming everything will go fine.
Have you ever thought what would happen if every person with anxiety, depression or a phobia was to learn to channel their imagination into more creative endeavors? Helping people to see their anxiety as creative helps remove some of the stigma and offers hope of a better existence to come – with a little training and practice!
In their book Homo Prospectus, Martin Seligman et al hypothesize that we humans are designed to project forward. We use what we know from past and present experience, plus an ability to conjecture and hypothesize, to project future possibilities and evaluate them. When we constantly plan for the worst, we are projecting scenarios that are at the negative end of the spectrum. And sometimes our evaluation process has gone a bit haywire. We spend a disproportionate amount of time contemplating and planning for the negative but most unlikely scenarios. And we leave little or no time contemplating the much more likely neutral or positive outcomes.
I had a chance to speak with Dr. Seligman at a conference, and I asked him about my interpretation and he said he agreed. Anxiety is too much focus on and projection of negative outcomes combined with an unreasonable emphasis on those outcomes over others. As the champion of learned helplessness and learned optimism, how can we argue with that?
Then when we add in our tendency to look for evidence that what we believe is true – known as confirmation bias – and throw in the research that says that the brain cannot tell the difference between what is real and imagined, and we have the perfect storm of anxiety creation and maybe ultimately a phobia. Speaking to Dr. Seligman about this topic really reinforced my belief in the power of the Thrive Programme. Just as we learn to focus our thinking on anxious thoughts, we can learn to focus on more realistic and groundedly optimistic thoughts.
Confirming Our Own Suspicions
Here is an example from my own experience.
About 10 years ago, I was due to visit family in the UK. My husband was going on a boys’ ski trip to France for a week. I was going to fly over with him and stay in London. At the end, I was to meet him for a couple of days’ vacation together before flying back to the US.
We made all the arrangements, but a few weeks before the trip, my anxiety started to kick in. I started to imagine all the scenarios in which I would experience the thing I most feared: either I or someone else is sick. Every aspect of the proposed trip became tainted. I studied seat layouts for the plane trying to decide which seat would be the “least dangerous”. I did not want to be sitting too close to the bathrooms, to close to the wings. I could not sit in a middle seat, but if I sat by the window I would be blocked from escaping. If I sat on the aisle people would have to pass me to get to the bathroom. I ruminated and imagined things going horribly wrong. I imagined that we would fly at a time when norovirus was running rife. I pictured people looking pale and sweaty waiting for the flight. I worked myself into a state where I was afraid to use the bathrooms at the airport. I visualized sitting near people who were ill or drunk. I reinforced my fears of flying with a recollection of a trip where a small child sitting a few rows from me had been sick (one time, on one flight!). Here was my confirmation: flying = legitimate fear. The funny thing is I did not once visualize that the plane would crash!
That is confirmation bias. What about the evidence of all the flights that friends, my husband and everyone else have taken with no such incident? I took that one instance and confirmed (in my head) my fear. And what about all the ways the vacation could be great? I pictured all the ways the vacation could go wrong for me over and over again.
I hardly EVER pictured having a fun time, catching up with family and friends, relaxing over nice meals. Not once did I think about having a break from work and my everyday routine; about not having to answer emails and calls from colleagues. My focus was on all the ways the trip could go wrong. Plan for the worst at its worst! And what is worse is that the “hope for the best” part went flying out of the window. I became so convinced that these terrible outcomes were true and inevitable – the power of my imagination was SO strong – that I could not believe that all the bad things would not happen. And… you guessed it, I canceled my trip. My husband flew on his own and had a totally uneventful flight.
He had a great time in France, my sister’s family were not ill, my friends carried on and had a blast without me. All I did was miss out! Imagination won the day, and I lost out on what I am now certain would have been a fun trip.
The whole experience was miserable. I felt ashamed at my weakness. But I learned from that experience – and many like it – that this is the “curse” side of imagination. What is the cure?
What if I tell you that your imagination is also the cure – or at least part of it?
Imagination and visualization help us to create our fear and anxiety because our brains cannot tell that we are not actually experiencing the thing that we imagine. So, the same is true if we imagine GOOD outcomes. Many people use this to good effect every day – for example, athletes who visualize the whole process of competing, every move they will make. Musicians who visualize playing music while they are on a plane, or in the cab going to the performance space.
For people who suffer from anxiety and phobias or depression, when we learn to imagine positive scenarios, focus on the likely and positive outcomes, and switch our thinking from “plan for the worst and hope for the best” to “plan for the best and deal with things if they go wrong”, our projecting into the future becomes more positive, productive and fulfilling.
Performers don’t perform without rehearsing. Visualizing is rehearsing. And what we rehearse is what we become. Visualizing is not about picturing great outcomes with no challenges. Consider athletes, for whom visualization is so important. The 110-meter hurdler doesn’t visualize just crossing the finish line first, breaking the tape and taking the bows. He pictures setting the blocks, hearing the sound of the starter pistol and immediately launching forward. They see themselves powering down the track, taking the first hurdle on the right stride, keeping the rise above the hurdle high enough not to hit it – which would slow them down and break their rhythm – but not so high that they waste energy and time. Before the race starts they rehearse the start and take a couple of hurdles to find their rhythm. The secret is to visualize the hurdles and overcoming them.
As anxious, phobic and depressed people we have some really great things in our favor:
- We are not stupid, we are intelligent.
- Creativity abounds! We can see possibilities that others do not think of.
- We are experts at using our imaginations.
Of course, it is not as simple as saying “well just imagine positive outcomes’, or “just consider what is likely to happen”, but as we understand the way we have learned to think and learn to change and manage that thinking, we can learn to refocus that prospective thought and become the people we would like to be instead of the people we think we are stuck being.
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