Anxiety is Your Imagination? A Psychologist Explains.

Years ago, I read something that said, “Anxiety is just imagination.”  I thought long and hard about that phrase.  And I’ll be honest, I’m not thrilled about the use of the word “just.”  I think it’s minimizing and dismissive.  Anxiety has more complexity and nuance, and the word “just” feels demeaning for people who struggle with anxiety.  But, outside of the word “just,” I decided I really liked that phrase.

Anxiety is imagination.

When you struggle with anxiety, your brain has the incredible ability to think of the worst-case scenario.  Your brain has the incredible ability to predict the worst possible outcomes and explanations for things.

You friend reads your text or opens a Snap but doesn’t respond all day, and you’re convinced they’re mad at you.  Your boss sets up a meeting, and you’re convinced you’re in trouble.  You have a new and somewhat unusual health symptom, and you’re convinced it’s cancer.

In each of these situations, your brain is imagining the worst possible outcome or explanation. It doesn’t know for certain that’s the explanation or outcome.  Nonetheless, it imagines, predicts, and then feels certain of this awful explanation.

It doesn’t know.  It imagines.  Anxiety involves imagination.  

So here’s where things get cool.  If anxiety involves imagination, then you can harness that imagination to help you.  You can use the same skill that makes you anxious to make you less anxious.

Let’s look at an example.  Let’s say your boss emails you and says they want to set up a meeting.  Immediately, you think, “Crap, I’m in trouble.”  Your anxiety tells you’ve done something wrong and are getting reprimanded.  Your anxiety doesn’t know this; your anxiety is imagining this.

So let’s harness that imagination, and let’s imagine all of the possible reasons your boss wants to meet. Maybe it is that you’re in trouble.  Your anxiety is already imagining that, and I’ll give it to you, it’s a possibility.  But maybe your boss wants to talk about a new project or task they’re assigning to you.  Maybe they want to follow-up about something you turned in or presented earlier.  Maybe they want to talk about duties being reassigned among your team.  Maybe they want to ask your opinion on something.  Maybe they want to talk about schedule changes.  Maybe they’re going to tell you that they’re going on parental leave or that they’re leaving the company.  Maybe they want to ask for feedback about how they’re doing as a boss.  Maybe they want to tell you about an exciting new development in the company.  Maybe they want to give you kudos on the awesome work that you’re doing lately.  Or maybe they want to give you a raise.

Your anxiety just wants to imagine one, awful, terrible outcome or explanation.  But you can harness that imagination to consider other possibilities and explanations.  And when you do that, you take what feels certain and make it less certain.  When you harness your imagination to consider other possibilities, your anxiety will come down.

When you harness your imagination to consider other possibilities, your anxiety will come down.

Imagination involves creative thinking, identifying new and different ideas.  It involves thinking outside of the box, stretching beyond your initial ideas and finding new ones.  

However, want to be clear about something.  Imagination isn’t always easy.  Sure, if I’m imagining what I’d do if I won the lottery, that’s easy.  If I’m imagining all of the places I want to travel post-pandemic, that’s easy.  But imagining different outcomes, when my anxiety is trying to convince me that there’s only one certain and awful possibility?  That’s MUCH harder.

If you’re anxious, it’s easy for your brain to imagine the worst.  But it’s much harder for your brain to imagine the best or even just the in between options.  So, when you find yourself predicting and imagining the worst, here’s what I want you to do.

Let yourself acknowledge and imagine the worst. That’s fine for a second.  (After all, it is a possibility.)  But after that, challenge yourself to imagine a bunch of other explanations and outcomes. No matter how silly, small, or unlikely you might think it is, name it.  Acknowledge it.  Imagine it as a possibility.

That effort, that act of imagination is how you poke holes in your anxiety.  It’s how you cast doubt on negative outcomes that seem certain in your brain.  

So when your anxiety pops up this week, use your imagination.  Use your imagination to think of all the possibilities, all the explanations, and all the outcomes that could occur.  Do that, over and over, with intention, and you will be amazed at how quickly your anxiety comes down.

Anxiety is imagination.  Let’s imagine together.

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