“When it comes to terror, reality’s got nothing on the power of the imagination.”
-Fredrik Backman, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry
Imagination is more than a conduit to creativity. We use it for problem solving, for visualization. It’s an influence on our daily lives and life as a whole, but if left unchecked, it can run wild. It’s easier for us to imagine the bad than the good, and for that reason, often our imagination defaults to the dark side of what’s possible and steers our minds towards it.
When I was in college, I went to hang out with my friend C who answered the door with a drink in his hand and looking exhausted and disheveled. It was 2002 and the first deployment of U.S. troops had just arrived in Afghanistan. C’s little brother was there on the ground in combat, and he was only 18 years old. C was beside himself with worry. He watched footage of the fray on the news and imagined his little brother surrounded by an endless onslaught of gunfire and explosions. He pictured him lying on the ground scared and confused, dying alone.
When we are facing a story that is incomplete, we fill in the gaps with what we imagine could be true. When I arrived at C’s house, it had been two days since he’d heard from his brother, and he had been filling the gaps in his mind with the darkest possibilities. He could not get control over the stories he was playing out in his mind. His imagination tormented him.
Our imagination takes the darkest turn when we are in a state of worry. We have a tendency to imagine the worst scenarios rather than the best ones, conjuring images of all the things that could go wrong and that terrify us. We manifest fear rather than hope, and the only way to overcome it is to take back control over our thoughts.
Here are a few things to try:
1) Recognize that your imagination is running wild, and find a distraction to change your mind’s focus. An activity like taking a walk will allow your thoughts to continue wandering, so instead engage in an activity that requires you to focus your mind on something specific. Read a book or article. Start a conversation with someone around you or call someone.
For example, maybe there was a recent natural disaster that resulted in destruction and loss of life. You can’t stop thinking about it, imagining families torn apart, people missing, homes destroyed. It’s a sad and upsetting story, and allowing it to consume you is not doing you or anyone else any good. Focus your mind elsewhere.
2) Try shifting the disposition of your imagination. Rather than picturing the worst, try picturing the best. Visualize positive scenarios playing out in your mind. This will help ease your fears and anxiety. This is a good skill to have for any tough situation.
If you have a job interview coming up, don’t imagine yourself struggling to measure up in all of your nervousness. Visualize yourself responding to questions with smart and insightful answers. Picture yourself appearing poised and confident and smiling.
3) Focus on the facts and let go of the unknown. Accept that you don’t have the complete story. Rather than allowing your imagination to fill in the gaps, seek out the remaining truth of the story or let it go.
Maybe your significant other was unfaithful and you cannot stop imagining your person interacting with someone else, picturing all the painful details that go along with it. You don’t need to fill in those gaps. Focus on the facts, deal with the situation, and let the rest go.
4) When you find yourself imagining a worst-case scenario, create a plan for overcoming it. Think about how you will survive it and how you could even turn it around to your advantage. When I do this it puts me more at ease and I feel stronger and more prepared for what’s to come.
I get nervous when I’m home alone, especially at night, and imagine that every bump and creek I hear is an indication of a home invasion. My heart starts to race and I get anxious. So just in case it’s not simply my imagination, I think about how I will handle the situation and make a plan of action and then I begin to relax.
A couple of days after we hung out, C heard from his little brother who was safe and doing okay. C ended up seeking professional help however to gain control over his thoughts and to manage his fear and anxiety as his brother continued with his military tour.
Imagination is a powerful gift that can influence and overwhelm. It’s a beautiful and amazing thing, but we must be mindful of how we use it to make sure it doesn’t turn against us, to make sure we don’t turn against ourselves.
Photo via VisualHunt