The human imagination is an incredible thing, and probably unparalleled in the animal kingdom. It’s behind our greatest achievements as a species and as individuals, but also our darkest fears.
When we’re faced with a situation that’s unfamiliar or involves a level of threat, we start to imagine what could go wrong. What if I lose my place when I give that presentation? What if I accidentally offend someone during that networking event? What if I fail to impress in that interview?
We can get so caught up in our imaginings that disaster feels like a foregone conclusion.
Here are some techniques to counteract these negative thoughts – by fighting imagination with imagination.
Use safe space imagery
What’s your idea of paradise? Have a think about it. Perhaps it’s a golden beach. Maybe it’s a little cottage with a peaceful country garden. It might be a library or a laboratory. Don’t concern yourself with what paradise is ‘supposed’ to be – create one that works for you. This is your safe place.
When it comes to making your safe place, anything goes. The only rule is that it should be a space where there are no demands on you: you can leave your worries and responsibilities at the door.
Get the outline, and then start to add detail. A good way to do this is to focus on your senses. Let’s say your safe space is a library. Can you smell the paper, the ink and the book bindings? Is the place totally silent, or can you hear the birds in the trees outside? Take a book off the shelf – how does it feel in your hands? Open it – what’s written in its pages? Are there illustrations? What do they look like?
If you spend some time building this world, you’ll hopefully find yourself able to retreat there when things get tough. Safe places aren’t about running away from your troubles: they’re about stepping back and catching your breath before returning to the situation with a sense of calm.
Rehearse the scenario in a positive way
You’ve built a world – now it’s time to write a script. First, consider your hopes rather than your fears. How could this unfamiliar or high-stakes situation go right? What’s your ideal outcome?
Now confront your worst-case scenario and turn it on its head, incorporating elements of your best-case scenario. If you fear that you’ll lose your place during a presentation, imagine instead being fluent and confident. If you’re worried that the audience will become bored and restless, imagine them hanging on to your every word.
You can also imagine encountering issues but overcoming them. You’ll already have identified what could potentially go wrong and will probably have come up with ways to recover, but it’s helpful to go a little bit further and imagine your preparation really paying off. For example, maybe you lose your place, but you don’t lose your composure – you deal with it like a pro, and everyone respects you all the more for it.
Instead of imagining the pain of failure, imagine the joy of success. How great are you going to feel when you get that job, that promotion, that grant, that recognition? If you can’t imagine such a positive outcome, just picture having got through your feared situation without anything terrible happening, and how relieved you’ll be.
You can do all this in your head, but sometimes literally writing out and rehearsing the new, positive scenario can help.
Use mind-control (sort of)
When you’re constructing your safe place and creating a new, positive version of events, you’re probably going to find your fears sometimes breaking through. Don’t ignore them – if you do that, they’re just going to come back stronger than ever. You can’t control what enters your mind, but you can control the effect it has on you.
Instead of attempting to get rid of your fears, acknowledge them, and then play around with them a bit.
Stick a sheet of noise-reducing glass in front of them; select and resize them so that they’re tiny; put a monochrome filter on them; manipulate them in whatever way you need to for them to become less bothersome.
There are all sort of helpful resources that expand on the above techniques and suggest further ways to use the imagination to reduce anxiety. You’ll find them with a quick search for “positive imagery for anxiety” or something along the same lines. It’s within your power to manage anxiety over future workplace stress: you just have to use your imagination.
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