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Imagery and Your State of Mind

Tricking your Brain

          Many people think of imagination as a potentially enjoyable means of escaping from the less pleasant aspects of daily life.  Others think of it as something used mainly by artists to create paintings, movies, music, books, and other artistic things.   

          But actually, imagination refers to a capacity of the human brain we all have – the  capacity to conceive of an experience we’ve not yet had, or to relive one we’ve already had.  And if we conceive or relive the experience vividly enough, if our attention is focused enough, our brain treats the experience as if it were really happening.  In others words, the brain will trigger the same emotional and physiological responses in our mind and body that it would if the experience actually were happening.  The imagined experience also leaves the same kind of impressions in the brain as the real one would have.

          Here’s a little experiment you can try to get a taste of how you can use imagery to affect your state of mind.

          Take a moment to get comfortable and imagine yourself in the following situations as vividly as you can.  Try to imagine that you’re really there, feeling everything that’s going on. The more vividly you imagine it, the more powerful the effect will be.

Situation 1: 

You’re in your car on the way to an important appointment.  It’s a hot summer day, with a high of close to 105 degrees Fahrenheit.  Your air-conditioning is broken, so you’ve got all your windows open, hoping for a little breeze to take the edge off the searing heat.

About five minutes into the ride, the traffic slows down and comes to a halt. A minute elapses, two minutes, three minutes and still the traffic isn’t going anywhere.  The heat is intense, and sweat is coming out of every pore, soaking your clothes and your hair.  Fifteen minutes elapse.  Some people are starting to honk their horns, radios are blaring.  But no one seems to know what the hold-up is or how long it will last.

Take a moment to notice what’s happening in your mind and body.  How is your breathing – is it deep or shallow?  Is your face tense or relaxed?  What about your neck and shoulders?  How are you feeling about the people in the traffic jam with you?  How are you feeling about life in general? 

Situation 2

Now imagine you’ve got a big eraser, and erase that whole scene from your mind.  Take a few slow, deep breaths in and out.  And now imagine yourself in a different scene. Again, try to imagine it as vividly as you can – as if you were really there experiencing the scene.

It's a beautiful clear evening at sunset, and you're walking on the beach with a friend – someone you feel completely at ease with. The sand, still warm from the day’s sun, feels soft against your feet.  The air, too, feels warm but there’s a light breeze against your skin as you walk. You can hear the gentle rhythm of the waves lapping against the shore and the warm seawater washes over your feet as the tide come in.  

The sky is filled with a wash of magnificent colors – oranges, purples and pinks.  Off in the distance a sailboat is heading silently into the sunset. There's a feeling of peace and stillness in the air. 

Notice how you're breathing now. Notice your face, your shoulders, your back – are they tenser or more relaxed? What kind of mood are you in?  Notice how you feel about the people you pass on the beach.  How do feel about life in general?

The Power of Imagery

          It’s possible that these particular images were not evocative for you, and that imagining other kinds of situations might provoke an increase in tension or relaxation for you.  

          But if you did experience some degree of increased tension in the first scene, and some degree of greater relaxation in the second, it’s important to realize that the change had nothing to do with anything outside of you.  Presumably, your external circumstances stayed pretty much the same – the only thing that changed were the images in your mind. 

          The images in your mind – whether you’re aware of them or not – are always affecting your mood and your physiology.  You have the power to bring the peace of the sunset to the stress of a traffic jam . . .  Or, you can bring the stress of a traffic jam, or a tough day you had at work to a walk on the beach at sunset.