Your Imagination

Imagination is a lovely thing.

It’s one of the things that makes humans powerful. Think of our ancestors. “Oh, I notice that rock is round… I wondeeeerrrr…” That’s how that story went and eventually there were wheels!

Almost everything that exists outside of the natural world started out in someone’s imagination. So, hey, imagination is great, and it can lead to useful things.

But something else stems from imagination, and it’s not so useful. Worry. “What if this awful thing happens??!?!!” or “I won’t be able to handle it if he breaks up with me” or “What if my kid turns out to be an unkind person?” Worry is future oriented, negative repetitive thinking, or anxious apprehension.

Of course everyone gets these thoughts.

If you feel plagued by worry, and find a lot of your attention is placed on negative ideas of the future, here are a couple things to try.

Start noticing it for what it is: imagination. Label it. When worry thoughts pop up, actually say to yourself, “oh, there’s imagination.” Take that step back, gently, away from the content. To call it what it is, imagining, just imagining. And then shift your attention, deliberately, to reality. To something physical and present, like the details of your breath, or the sights of what is right in front of you. To ground you in the present, in what is real. Need help? Try this 5 minute exercise to practice mindfully attending to sight. The point is to practice not pushing away or feeding worry thoughts, those fragments of imagination. Just gently shift the priority of your focus.

OR

Worry postponing. Pick a time, a 10 minute stretch in which your sole task will be to put all your effort into worrying. Nothing but worrying. Stay focused. Really do it. If worry thoughts arise outside that time, remind yourself that you have a dedicated time for that, and that you will come back to it then. This way your mind does not get constantly hijacked when you’d rather be putting your attention toward things that help you move toward your goals and values.

The Duck

There’s a duck on my table.

It’s art that belongs to the woman who owns the office suite. It’s playful, and even a little silly… I like it. It reminds me of thoughts, and the idea that we ought not to take them so seriously. They’re just thoughts afterall. Sometimes they’re helpful, sometimes they’re not. So hold them lightly. People who struggle with anxiety or OCD often look at the world through their thoughts. That can be trouble.

Psychologists have a term called “cognitive defusion,” strategies that provide more distance from thoughts, less attachment, less “fusion.” For example, someone with social anxiety might think after meeting someone new “She thinks I’m boring. I’m so boring!” If you are fused with those thoughts, you might then spend the next several minutes ruminating about your perceived social incompetence and how you’ll always be alone, etc. The mind can be very active when it weaves a story!

Let’s rewind and play that out differently. If you’re practicing cognitive defusion, try on a different approach. When the thought “she thinks I’m boring” pops up in your head, notice it as a thought. You don’t need to make it go away, and you don’t need to feed it either. Take a second to say to yourself “I notice that I’m having the thought that… she thinks I’m boring.” Say it again and really take it in.

Practice now. Say “She thinks I’m boring.” And then say “I notice that I’m having the thought that she thinks I’m boring.”  Pay attention to the difference.

This is one of many tools to start to develop a different relationship with your thoughts, so they have less impact on the life you want to lead. If you want more help with this, a great book is Russ Harris’s Happiness Trap. I’m also happy to talk with you about treatment. I specialize in therapy for anxiety and OCD. You should know, though, that if you come to my office, you might notice a duck on my table.