In another post I discussed the different labels we can put on the same emotional sensations, and how these labels affect our reactions, making the difference between excitement and anxiety. In this post I’ll be discussing another factor in anxiety, namely imagination.
Imagination is a precious gift, without which we would be more animal than human. Every great achievement, every work of art, every technical invention, began in somebody’s imagination. Realistically, we cannot achieve everything we can imagine. However, it is certainly true that if we can’t imagine something, we’re unlikely to achieve it.
The disadvantage of imagination, however, is that we can imagine all kinds of disastrous events, and waste time and energy worrying about them even though they are unlikely to occur. Whereas an animal thinks only of the here and now, we humans can dwell upon our memories of the past, and worry about things that haven’t happened yet, scenes that we create and play out in our imagination.
When we experience the physical sensations such as racing pulse, tremor, and muscle tension, we may apply different labels to these feelings, such as “excitement” or “anxiety”, and react accordingly. These sensations also trigger trains of thought in our imagination. These trains of thought are like stories we tell ourselves, often extending on into the future. For example, when you feel anxious on speaking to someone whom you haven’t met before, this may trigger an imaginary “story” in which the other person reacts badly, maybe laughing at you, or deciding that you’re stupid and mocking you to other people. These “stories” have a life of their own, leaping onwards from one imaginary event to another, without reference to reality.
Even when a “story” is totally imaginary, it has great power if we behave as if it’s real. For instance, if we avoid new people because we imagine they will scorn us or dislike us, those people will probably form a bad impression of us, thinking we’re unfriendly, snobbish, or uninteresting.
The good news is that imagination can be controlled and trained. We can learn to use our imagination in positive ways, enlarging our possibilities. It takes a bit of practice, which is why it’s no good just ordering people to “think positive!” However, the positive use of imagination can be learned by anyone of normal intelligence.