As a kid, one of the first things you will learn is anything you can imagine is real. From art class to writing, teachers always encourage children to let their imagination go wild. Since you are the controller of your imagination, you can do anything in it, including managing anxiety.
Yes, you read that right. Researchers have previously said that being able to imagine is what mainly makes human beings different from all other animals.
Moreover, further studies on this matter show how what you imagine and think can actually have an influence on the body. For example, a study from 2009 in the Psychological Science concluded that the body prepares itself and expects any activity or scenario that is imagined.
According to another study from the journal Current Biology, imagining particular shapes and sounds may affect a person’s perception of the world.
More recently, a new study highlights that the brain perceives whatever a person imagines to be real. The paper further explains that this may help a person control their anxiety and overcome fear.
The research was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, NY. The findings are published in journal Neuron.
Read the paper here.
How Was the Study Conducted?
Exposure therapy is a popular process that psychologists often use on people with anxiety disorders or phobias. What is this therapy? The procedure works by exposing the person to the specific fear or the potential ‘trigger’ repeatedly.
Consequently, the person gradually overcomes the phobia/trigger. The main idea of this procedure is to desensitize. To avoid any problems, the triggers are controlled and the psychologist makes sure the environment is safe and suitable.
The researchers in their new study observed brain activity using MRI scans in real as well as imagined situations. A particular trigger was also a part in both. The main objective was to figure out whether imagination aids in overcoming the negative linkages with the stimuli.
Marianne Cumella Reddan, who is a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of the lead author of the study says:
“These novel findings bridge a long-standing gap between clinical practice and cognitive neuroscience” She further says “This is the first neuroscience study to show that imagining a threat can actually alter the way it is represented in the brain”.
In the study, the 68 participants were conditioned to link getting an electric shock with a specific sound. They were then divided into three groups.
The first one had to hear the sound associated with electric shock. The second group was asked to imagine a similar sound while the third was asked to concentrate on the sounds they link with calmness and happiness.
What Were the Results?
During the time the participants imagined and heard sounds, the researchers were noting the brain activity using functional MRI scanning. In addition, the researchers put sensors on the skin of the participants in order to look at psychological responses.
The team then discovered that the brain activity was almost the same in people who heard the sound and the ones who only imagined it. Furthermore, after repeatedly hearing and imagining without getting actual electric shocks, the participants stopped being afraid.
In the third group with happy imagination, the participants never overcame the fear and the negative association.
This means that a person may be able to control and manage certain fears and anxiety triggers by just using their minds. However, the researchers also pointed out that this method works better for people with vivid imaginations. If you do not have an active imagination, this may not work for you.
Similarly, they suggested the same method can be followed to relieve bad memories from the past via manipulation through imagination. Further research into the method may even pave the way for new psychological therapies and procedures.