Use the Positive Power of Your Imagination

Next step in anxiety treatment: Use the positive power of your imagination.

It is impossible to be in the grip of anxiety unless you are running a fantasy through your brain that is terrifying the life out of you! This is strong evidence indeed of just how powerful our imagination is. In fact, it is so powerful that just imagining something you are nervous about doing or running pictures through your mind of a past frightening event is sufficient to switch on the fight-or-flight response Gust as reliably as if we had in reality come face to face with a pack of hungry hyenas whilst walking across the plains of Africa). But, again, this is pure misuse of imagination, which evolved to help us find both practical and creative solutions to problems. So instead we need to be firmly determined to take control of the switch and to use our imagination as an anxiety-reduction tool instead of an anxiety-production one.

We all use our imagination all of the time, even if we don't think of ourselves as imaginative people. For instance, if we need a new sofa and like the look of one we see in a shop, we don't buy it just because it is attractive or a nice colour or the right price: first of all, we imagine how it will look in our living room. We don't have difficulty creating an image or a sense of our living room in our heads and it is real enough to enable us to judge whether this new sofa will look too large, and dominate the room, or set it off perfectly. Or whether itscolour will go with the colours we've already got or clash horribly. Our imagination helps us make the right decision. As an everyday example, if we need to store a number of small items, we imagine a suitable receptacle and then go off and find one. Even in these small ways, our imagination is always working.

But it is also far more powerful than that. Imagination enables us to look back to what worked in the past and apply that solution, with perhaps some appropriate modifications, to a challenge we are facing in the future. Just as pilots first learn to fly by working the controls in a simulator, before they try out in a real plane, so we can try out options or rehearse probable outcomes in our imagination before testing them out for real. That's why we like to call the imagination our 'reality simulator'.

Exercise: Give your own 'reality simulator' a try

The technique we are going to describe next is one that effective therapists use a great deal to help people establish new, empowering expectations in the place of negative fantasies. We call it 'mental rehearsal'.

First, find a quiet place at a time you won't be disturbed and relax yourself, using the method you like best from the ones we described earlier.

Decide on an anxiety-provoking situation that you want to try out a new response to. You might, for instance, be about to take your driving test soon, an anxiety-provoking event indeed. However, don't bring to mind, in glorious technicolour and with full soundtrack, all those past occasions when the car slid backwards while you were attempting a hill start or when you reversed around the corner and half way across the road (as this is all sure to get your heart racing unhelpfully). Instead, vividly see yourself driving calmly and confidently to the test centre with your instructor or companion, greeting the examiner with a firm handshake, calmly answering his or her initial questions, confidently opening the car door, being calm and alert as you start the engine and so forth. See yourself carrying out the required manoeuvres successfully, drawing on your real-life experience of having done so many times in the past. Tell yourself, "I can do this."

If you carry out this procedure several times on different occasions before the day, you are doing something very astute. You are harnessing the power of expectation. For, as we explained in Part 1, once an expectation is set up, the brain wants to carry it out. Just as surely as you have sometimes previously brought on disaster by fantasising catastrophes, so you can hugely enhance your likelihood of success by creating the expectation you will succeed.

Using your reality simulator in this way, whenever you are facing a challenge, is both a highly pleasant and effective means of undoing unhelpful pattern matches. But it isn't magic. No amount of imagining will help you pass your driving test if you haven't done enough real practice. Nor, of course, will it bring success in any other area where you haven't done the necessary preparation: you can't give a talk about life in Mongolia unless you know the subject. What it will do, however, is help prevent disabling anxiety from sabotaging all the preparation and practice that you have done.

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