Photo by Aaron Huber on Unsplash

We all day dream and imagine life scenarios where we are admired, loved, successful and mentally strong. However, not many are aware that our imagination can actually destroy the obstacles that stand between us and our health, especially our mental health.

A study on brain imaging led by the University of Colorado Boulder and Icahn School of Medicine suggests that imagination can heal people with fears and anxieties and those who struggle with trauma.

The hypothesis was that, instead of giving the traditional exposure treatment to people with anxiety and trauma, they were asked to imagine the threat for a few moments which helped them overcome the negative bodily reaction associated with the threat.

This made the researchers conclude that a fearful stimuli can produce similar reactions in the body even when the stimuli is not real. As a result, the participants were better able to overcome the threat in real life by first visualizing it. Marianne Cumella Reddan, the lead author of the study said that this is the first study that proves that imagining a traumatic event can actually change the way it is represented in the brain.

In other words, by imagining a fearful situation like flying, for example, you teach your brain to not be afraid of flying when you actually do have to board a plane.

“Statistically, real and imagined exposure to the threat were not different at the whole brain level, and imagination worked just as well.”, said Reddan.

Another point of the study is that, the way to overcome a fearful response (eg. anxiety before boarding a plane) in someone with trauma is to not imagine a pleasant experience to overshadow the past traumatic event (eg. a past flight that has gone through turbulence). Instead, one can imagine the actual threat in full detail to help the brain become desensitised to it.

Other studies proved that imagining an act activated the regions of the brain involved in its real-life execution. Therefore, if one wants to improve their guitar playing skills for example, imagining how better they are getting at playing guitar and how much satisfaction they are getting from it is a good method to improve performance.

Imagination and trauma

We’ve all been through more or less painful traumatic experiences. We know that trauma leaves a mark on our memory that is pretty difficult to erase.

The statistics around the occurrence of trauma is eye-opening: one in five Americans was sexually-molested as a child; one in four was physically abused by a parent and one in three couples engages in domestic violence.

No wonder trauma is a reality for a big majority of us. Moreover, many of us do not even have the chance to process and heal this trauma and, as a result, we pass it on to our children. However, there is a solution for most psychological problems that result from traumatic experiences: imagination.

Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, the author of ‘The body keeps the score: brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma’ believes that our imagination and the physical sensations that accompany it can be re-integrated in the person’s understanding of the trauma and his actions. This integration usually leads to physical and emotional healing.

A higher perspective on trauma

One way that Van Der Kolk suggests to process trauma is by re-imagining the traumatic experience but from a new, higher perspective. Imagine that you are older and wiser and you see what has happened to you as something that benefited your life experience and helped you grow. 

On the other hand, thinking of your trauma as a punishment or bad luck could make you feel worse and more like a victim.

When we feel powerless and weak, we tend to miss out on opportunities that may make us feel better and even overcome our inner struggle. However, when we choose to shift our perspective on pain, it is as if we decide to regain power and control over our lives, and that feeling will lead to creating better life experiences.

Engage the senses

Another way to use imagination to process a traumatic event is to engage your five senses.

This exercise is called ‘the application of the senses’ and was developed by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish priest and theologian who founded the Jesuit Order in 1534.

This exercise is done in order to prevent people from numbing their emotions, a common behaviour in those who have gone through trauma. Generally, people tend to suppress how they feel about an unpleasant event which, in turn, will cause them to develop various health problems.

Engaging the five senses means to start feeling every sensation that comes up during the day. This will help the person feel instantly better. During the imagining process, it is recommended to imagine the voices of the people in a particular place (imagined or real), the smells in the air, the textures of surfaces and whatever sounds you might imagine hearing. 

You can even imagine touching, kissing and holding certain people in that place and ground yourself in that specific moment.

During these imagining scenes you can draw the benefits of being there, in that particular pleasant environment. By doing this, you can become more positively engaged with your body, with the feelings in your body and, as a result, you can escape the prison of the negative thoughts where the victims of trauma find themselves locked in.

You can start appreciating yourself more by experiencing the emotions you couldn’t experience in the past due to the frightened feelings that trauma produced.

Being connected with yourself, the place you’re in, the people around you and whatever feeling might come rushing over you is a great recipe for inner healing.

By practicing this exercise, anyone can break out of the unhealthy pattern of suppressing negative emotions, hating themselves and those who have caused the hurt and start being more prepared for the recovery process.

Create a better future

Van Der Kolk believes that imagining a better reality while you’re struggling with how you feel, helps you break out of your inner blocks. Victims of trauma often have a difficulty imagining future events due to them being stuck in the present moment. (where things hurt so much)

However, as long as you can find a glint of hope in your mind about the future and can draw a better picture of it, you’re more likely to overcome yourself and your traumatic event.