Emotional Imagination: A Technique to Reduce Anxiety

· May 30, 2018

Anxiety is the monster that chases you around and doesn’t let you enjoy the present. Sometimes before you even get out of bed, you find yourself already overwhelmed by everything you have to do today, this week, these months.

Your worries are so internalized that they end up becoming a part of you and slipping between your thoughts. They’re a constant presence in your life, even when you’re not aware of them. It’s as if they were a backdrop for everything you do. An ominous shadow that never goes away, not even when the sun goes down.

However, is it possible to get beyond it? Well, read on and find out what emotional imagination is!

“Everyone has the capacity to change themselves.”
-Albert Ellis-

What is emotional imagination?

Emotional imagination is a psychological technique framed within Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. He is one of the most widely recognized psychotherapists of all time. This therapy is based on the cognitive-behavioral approach, which has more empirical support than any other. It has been validated by numerous studies.

Unfortunately, you  hear stories about how therapy doesn’t work sometimes. Or you might even have first-hand experience of its failure. Going to a cognitive-behavioral therapist can be really effective and useful. However, therapy can’t be generalized as helpful for everybody, nor is it guaranteed to solve your problems.

Why should you use emotional imagination?

Now, to understand why emotional imagination can be so useful, you have to understand what is said about emotions from the cognitive-behavioral perspective. Emotions are your body’s response when confronted with changes in both the external and internal environments. That is, emotions can come from things that happen in your surroundings, but also thoughts in your mind.

In fact, thoughts are a fundamental part of emotional imagination, which gives you tools to modify and manage your negative internal dialogue, thoughts that make it much easier for negative emotions to be triggered.

Hands bound with strings.

Let’s give an example. You’re driving on the highway and you get in the left lane to pass a car. Then another car appears behind you at full speed and starts riding your tail. There are people who would think, “How can you drive so aggressively? Don’t you see we’re going to crash as soon as I step on the brakes? Who do you think you are to be driving like that?” How do you think these people feel, thinking these thoughts? How do you feel?

Emotions such as anxiety and anger will appear. It seems logical, right? But some people would have a different internal dialogue. “Fine, you can get as close to my car as you want… I’m going to continue driving at this speed until I pass the car next to me. That’s your problem if you’re in a hurry and can’t wait.In this situation, even if anxiety or anger do show up, they’ll be weaker.

How can you use emotional imagination?

The first thing you have to do to use emotional imagination is to take into consideration your capacity to be imaginative. If it’s hard for you, you may first need a set of training exercises to get better at it.

First of all, think about a particular scenario that produces anxiety for you. Once you have a specific situation in mind, think about every detail of it and why it makes you so uncomfortable.

Next, try to feel other negative emotions, but ones that are more comfortable. Make more appropriate and moderate negative emotions appear. But it’s important to keep in mind that you can’t modify anything within the imagined situation. The change in your emotions must be generated by the mental exercise you’re performing.

Once you’ve achieved this, verbalize the thoughts that helped make your negative emotions more adaptive. In the example of the car tailgating you, you’d try to look for thoughts similar to the second situation.

A hand reaching out from the sea symbolizing emotional imagination.

What benefits does emotional imagination offer?

When appropriately used and practiced, imagination is a tool that can greatly facilitate emotional regulation. In addition, the positive side to cognitive-behavioral techniques is that they’re complementary to each other. Thus, different tools can be used at the same time depending on the situation.

In this sense, emotional imagination is an “extra help” to reduce your discomfort in one central aspect: the management of dysfunctional and maladaptive thoughts. As you can imagine, even though you understand the importance of learning how to do this, it’s often difficult to do it.

“The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You don’t blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.”
-Albert Ellis-

Here, emotional imagination can help you think more carefully and critically about your concerns and fears. On top of that, it helps you correct past mistakes and trains your rational skills in order to prevent them from happening again. As if that wasn’t enough, it also helps improve your self-esteem and confidence. It does so by making you see that you’re more capable of handling uncomfortable situations.

Ultimately, it helps you re-educate yourself emotionally. Even so, don’t forget that if you feel great discomfort, the first step to taking control of your life again is to go to a good psychologist. They’ll help you learn effective strategies to control your life and emotions again.