“You cannot change the past, but you can change how you feel about the past.”
We often hear how important it is for children to use their imaginations. But did you know you can strategically use your imagination and use fantasy to manage your emotions and feel better? In fact, the use of fantasy is one way trauma therapists help their patients process emotions and heal psychological wounds. But all people can use imaginative play to enhance their wellbeing.
Amazing scientific fact: The brain cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality. For example, when I imagine I am running, evidence shows my brain reacting in large part as if I am actually running.* This helps explain why using imagination and fantasy is a powerful tool for feeling better.
Try this quick experiment:
Slow down by taking 4 or 5 deep breaths. Bring up a vivid image of someone or something you love that brings you joy: dancing, your partner or best friend, great food, nature, winning a sports game, your children, your pet, church, your favorite song - anything that makes you happy. Stay focused on the joyful image and the good feeling it brings up and keep sharpening it in your mind's eye.
Notice any subtle changes in your physical state? Did your breathing slow down? Do you feel warmer? More calm? Are there changes in your facial expression, your posture, your stomach? If so, congratulations! You just used your imagination to change your emotional state.
While this technique is known to be incredibly helpful to emotional well being, our culture has a bias against adults using fantasy and imaginative play. Some consider fantasizing to be morally wrong - imagining doing something bad for example can be considered taboo - as egregious as actually doing something bad.
What if you could use fantasy without guilt or shame? What is you were free to fantasize freely both to help yourself feel better and as a substitute for doing hurtful things to others? That’s part of what I (and many other therapists) teach.
Here are 4 ways you can use your imagination to feel better:
1. Imagine a peaceful place to calm down:
When you’re upset, imagine as vividly as possible a serene, comfortable place of your choosing, and breathe deeply. Feel yourself relax. Add sensations to make your fantasy more real. For example, if you’re imagining the beach, smell the salty air and feel the balmy breeze on your skin.
2. Discharge anger by imagining what you feel like doing to the person who angered you. (Parents, this is a great way to help a child who's angry.)
Your core authentic Self is loving and compassio