imag·i·na·tion | \ i-ˌma-jə-ˈnā-shən \
1: the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality*
“Imagination is more important than knowledge” Albert Einstein
Imagination is a wonderful gift. With it, we are able to tell stories, create art, make a house a home, cook delicious food, develop tools that help our community and so much more.
Almost everyone, to some degree, uses their imagination every day. (Surprisingly, not everyone has an imagination…who knew?)
And then there are those whose imagination is so vivid, that they can conjure images that are exceptionally detailed and life like. Images that when imagined, feel real.
I read a story about a young girl with a crippling anxiety disorder who also created art in the form of watercolours and oil paintings. She could joyfully describe her works in stunning detail. When asked if she could see a connection between her anxiety and her art, she couldn’t because she believed that everyone imagined like she did.
But not everyone’s imagination leads them to become as emotionally invested as this young girl. Dr. Paul Harris, a psychologist from Harvard writes “Children and adults alike have the capacity for ‘absorption’ in a pretend world…once we enter that state of absorption, it is the events occurring within the imagined world that drive our emotional system”. **
This is a good thing to know if you have a highly developed imagination.
Personally, I can go down dark imaginary paths before I’ve even realized that I’ve started a journey. I especially catch myself running troublesome scenarios through my mind when I am about to go into a new situation.
Awhile back, my husband and I were out walking, and we went along a trail that was unfamiliar and longer than what we have done in the past. After walking in silence for a while, I realized that I was thinking about what could go wrong. What if my feet hurt too much to keep walking and I can’t make it home? What if a big animal comes out of the trees? What if I fall and break my foot? Will my husband have to jog home and get the car? Will I just have to sit there pathetically while people walk by? How will I get out of there? I got really wrapped up in the worst-case scenario game until I caught myself thinking these negative thoughts and told my husband about them. He said we’d be fine, and we’d work it out. Don’t worry. Easy for him to say.
So, what’s an anxious person to do? Well, like everything else, we need to learn how to manage and live with our vivid imaginations.
Dr Robin Alter, a clinical psychologist and author of “Anxiety and the Gift of Imagination”, noticed that typically, children who come to see her for anxiety also have highly active and developed imaginations. Her role is to help them to understand their imagination, and to learn how to control it.
“You can say to a child “Your imagination is like a wild stallion. It’s strong and powerful. You need to tame it. You need to be in charge. Once you do that, imagine how much fun you’re going to have with it. If you don’t establish that you’re in charge…You’re going to be holding on for dear life and, how much fun will that be?” ***
How much fun indeed? But just knowing that we are the ones with the reins brings a degree of comfort. And once we do the work and learn how to ride that stallion, the benefits start to outweigh the hindrances.
I have often used my imagination to quell my anxieties. I create and perform guided meditations for myself and others. Closing my eyes and imagining myself sitting on a beach, next to a still body of water, the sun warm on my head and shoulders while a gentle breeze ruffles my hair, goes a long way to calming my inner anxiety. And because I get to create the scenario, I can also create a place with no bugs or harmful wild animals allowed. It’s all joy, peace, and nothing biting me.
I also use a technique that I call “finishing the story”. When I was imagining breaking my foot while walking with my husband down that long trail, I carried on with the story in my head. So, if by some weird occurrence I did break my foot, what happens next? Well, first I’d probably cry. Then I’d get up and wipe the gravel off of my pants. Then someone would get me out of there, either my husband or some nice hikers, or, if need be, the paramedics. Then I’d go to the hospital where they will probably give me a walking cast and tell me to get some crutches. Then I’d go home and spend a couple of weeks binge watching Netflix. Not so bad. I can handle that.
Even when I am startled awake by a highly imaginative dream, I make myself go back into it so I can change the outcome to what I want. The other night I dreamt that a pod of orcas came up to me and my dog while we were floating on the Ottawa river on a blowup raft, and one of them ate my dog. I woke up devastated. So, I went back in. Three times that damned orca ate my dog, but the fourth time, I punched it in the snout, rescued my dog, and paddled away. What’s the point of an imagination if I can’t save my wee dog? Am I right?
So, ask me for a for a worst-case scenario for any random situation and I could probably give you five off the top of my head and a dozen if you give me a minute, but, thankfully, I now know how to combat most of those scenarios too. I’ve got the tools I need.
And, because I am lucky enough to have a great imagination, I am rarely if ever bored. I write. I throw pottery, I hand felt wee creatures. I am always thinking up new things to do around the house. And I’m not selfish with my imagination. Ask my husband. I like to think up projects for him too. He loves it. Ask him. Well, maybe not?
**Paul L Harris, The Work of the Imagination
***Robin Alter, The Role of Imagination in Children with Anxiety