“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 compassionate. But when anger is triggered, you are overtaken by a specific biological agenda: you want to attack in order to defend and protect yourself! To safely discharge the intense emotional energy in your system, try imagining what your anger “wants to do.” For example, when I was 4 years old I would sometimes try to hit my little sister when she was getting the attention I wanted. My mother taught me it was absolutely fine to be angry with my sister but it was not ok for me to hit her. She taught, “we don’t hit people!” She bought me a blow up Bozo the Clown punching bag and told me I could pretend it was my sister and punch it all I wanted! I loved this idea. I feel tickled even as I remember this 45 years later. My mother - ahead of her time in many ways - knew making me feel guilty would only fuel negative feelings between my sister and me. Providing me an outlet for my imagination turned something toxic into play. My sister remains my best friend.
3. Imagine your very own custom made perfect “parent” to love you exactly as you need.
When you are aware of being upset, try imagining your ideal nurturing figure comforting you in exactly the right way for you. You can choose a real person, a fictional character, God in some form that feels right to you, or even an animal. The beautiful thing about fantasy is that we don’t need to be constrained by logic. Let this being comfort you. Imagine how their love feels as deeply as you can. If you like hugs (like I do), use your imagination to actually feel being hugged on your skin. Conjure everything you need.
4. Use fantasies to spice up your long-term relationship.
One key to keeping sex exciting (especially monogamous sex) is the use of fantasy and make believe play. Try to put your guilt aside and approach fantasy as you would a blank canvas. Imagine anything that excites you and bring that energy to your partner. This is far from a betrayal to your partner. It is a loving addition to your relationship that helps maintain your real life human connection.
To sum it up: Give yourself radical permission to use your imagination in any way that serves you. Experiment! Do more of the imaginative play that feels best. If something doesn’t bring relief, don’t be hard on yourself - just keep testing and playing. Using imagination and fantasy keeps us creative, keeps our brains “in shape,” and - now you know - quite literally makes us feel better.
Illustration by: Ellen Weinstein.
*Pally, R. (2000). The Mind-Body Relationship. New York: Karnac Books.