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How a Powerful Imagination Can Leave You Feeling Anxious

01/21/2015 05:20 EST | Updated 03/23/2015 05:59 EDT
Tara Moore via Getty Images

Imagine two women experiencing the same physical health worry -- they both find a suspicious mole on their arm. Both women visit their family physician and are reassured that there is no reason for concern based on the evaluation.

Now imagine that one of the women can easily imagine the doctor being wrong and actually having cancer, while the other woman finds it difficult to visualize a scenario where she actually has skin cancer.

In a world where rational thinking and logic rule, it wouldn't matter what these women could imagine -- because imagination isn't relevant to the outcome.

Unfortunately, we don't inhabit such a world and our thoughts and emotions are often swayed by things that have nothing to do with logic and facts.

In fact, research shows a clear link between how our imaginations work and the emotions of anxiety and regret. Specifically, the way in which visual images come to mind might even be causal factor for many anxiety disorders.

Oh Those Tricky Mental Shortcuts....

If there exist celebrities within the academic field of psychology, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky would certainly be among them. These psychologists became the leading experts in understanding how people make decisions and judgments in daily life. Specifically, their work repeatedly showed how and why humans make mistakes in their thinking.

Heuristics are shortcuts in thinking. As a demonstration, think about the following question:

What are more common, words that start with the letter 'K' or words that have 'K' as the third letter?

Most of us respond by estimating that words starting with 'K' must be correct. This is wrong -- there are many more words where 'K' is the third letter.

That people tend to answer wrong isn't the interesting part -- it's why we get it wrong.

Kahneman and Tversky found that people could more easily think of words that start with 'K' than words where 'K' was third. This doesn't just happen with simple riddles of this sort -- it happens with much of our thinking.

Specifically, the ease with which a thought comes to mind makes us conclude that the thought is more likely to be true. This is known as the availability heuristic.

There are all kinds of heuristics that lead us to make quick and easy decisions in our daily lives. Making quick and easy decisions tends to produce more errors and mistakes, but because we can't take hours for every decision in life, it seems that using heuristic thinking has become an engrained mental process that we all use.

How Does This Relate to Mental Health?

Anxiety is an emotion that occurs when we think there might be a threat in the future. Think back to the two women mentioned at the start of this article -- they both must make a decision or prediction about the future.

Is their health OK? What are chances that the doctor is wrong and a disease is actually present?

Psychological research shows that these women's imaginations may be more powerful and convincing than the doctor's advice.

These women are more likely to believe there is a threat to their health and feel anxious if:

1. They can quickly and easily simulate in their mind the doctor being wrong and cancer being present

2. They have difficulty imagining how the doctor could be right, and have fewer thoughts/images of their health being fine

The imagery that our mind produces (content) and the speed/access of these images (processing) can play a very significant role in all anxiety problems, not only those related to health.

Anecdotal evidence from therapy clearly shows such effects, as highly anxious clients often struggle to imagine how the future could be safe, while their brain easily generates all kinds of vivid and realistic images of their most feared outcome.

For example, someone with OCD might easily imagine scenarios where the door wasn't locked or the stove was left on -- these images flash through their mind with ease and can be difficult to dismiss. A socially anxious person can easily imagine people laughing at them and whispering behind their back, but struggle to imagine people smiling and liking them.

Interestingly, research has found that helping anxious people to practice imagining more realistic and safe outcomes reduces anxiety. Practice being the key term here -- because it seems that those who are vulnerable to anxiety have more difficulty imagining "safety scenarios" -- those where things work out fine.

Don't Underestimate the Mind's Eye

Our capacity to visualize things -- especially the future -- is one of humans' greatest attributes, and is responsible for much of our society's development across time and our own well-being.

Indeed, being able to imagine having a car crash or having a heart attack can motivate us to wear seat belts and eat healthy foods. So, the fact that our imaginations can create anxiety and affect behaviour is not always a bad thing.

However, it is the mark of a wise individual to know when a strength can also act as a weakness. In this case, knowing how your imagination and mind work to produce predictions and decisions that feel real, but are likely wrong, is a tremendous skill to have and cultivate. And if you struggle to do this on your own, consider consulting an expert in cognitive therapy.

I suspect there have been many people with wonderful imaginations (think of some of our best authors through history) who have both benefited from and suffered terribly as a result of their mind -- a mind that can easily produce a hyper-realistic nightmare that feels real, but has no basis in fact or logic.

While heuristics may be shortcuts, the effects they produce on our thoughts, emotions, bodies, and overall mental health can lead us down a much longer, darker path.

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