Picture yourself lying on your favourite beach. It’s a sunny day and the air is warm and still. The sand is soft beneath your body. You can hear the gentle hush of the waves as they lap on the shore. The sky is blue and there isn’t a cloud to be seen. A lone gull glides lazily above you, calls out once and soars away. The warmth of the sun and the softness of the sand leave you feeling relaxed and comfortable. The tension in your muscles is soothed and each breath you take leaves you feeling calmer and more content.
Our imagination can be a powerful tool and, with a bit of practice, can be put to good use to improve mental wellbeing. We all have the capability to use our imagination in this way. Children, in particular, are adept at transporting themselves to other places using just their imaginative powers. It might look like they are running around the garden in circles, but in their mind’s eye they are dancing with a fairytale prince or fighting the galactic emperor aboard his starship or leaping from building to building like their favourite superhero. It’s a sad fact of life that as we grow older and ‘put aside childish things’, we also put aside a skill that can be very useful to manage our moods. Like any other skill, if you don’t practice it, you get rusty.
Using our imagination to picture a relaxing or uplifting scene can be a very useful therapeutic tool. When working with clients who find their minds preoccupied with negative, intrusive thoughts that are both upsetting and frightening, I find it useful to encourage them to use their imagination to picture a happy memory or a pleasant scene. This might be an incident from their childhood, a memorable holiday destination, or even a scene from their favourite film. Regardless of what their piece of imagery is, by holding it in their mind, by focusing on the little details and fully engaging with the positive feelings it stimulates within them, the client can think themselves into a better place.
It isn’t easy. Most people are far better at dwelling on negative events from their past or visualising potentially problematic obstacles in their future. However, with practice, many people find that they are able to redirect their thoughts towards positive, helpful imagery that uplifts and empowers them.
When we think about something that is upsetting, depressing or frightening, we end up feeling depressed, upset or frightened. Conversely, when we think about something uplifting or relaxing, we feel happier or more relaxed. We feel the way we think. This is a basic principle of cognitive behavioural therapy and gaining understanding of how our minds work in this way can be enormously beneficial. The next time you find your thoughts dwelling on unhappy memories or worries about the future, consider the effect these negative thoughts will have on your mood. If we are capable of thinking ourselves unhappy, we are also capable of using positive imagery to lead us in the other direction. It just takes practice.
Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy