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Learn to Channel Anxiety into Imagination

Learn to Channel Anxiety into Imagination

I remember my first exchange with Rob Kelly, creator of The Thrive Programme, about tackling my own phobia. He said that in his 25 years of experience, he had found that most people with a phobia, anxiety, or depression are intelligent.

People often berate themselves for being stupid because they suffer from anxiety, a phobia or depression. They consider lack of mental health to be a weakness or a personal failing. Often, they think that they are doomed to be this way forever. And they certainly don’t see their anxiety as creative or imaginative! There is only one letter different between the words “curse” and “cure,” and yet there is a world of difference in terms of our experience.

[Related: Conscious Confidence: Shifting from Anxiety to Calm Power]

Sufferers are Creatives

I am increasingly struck by how imaginative people with anxiety are. That may sound strange, but seeing the potential “disaster” in a situation that to others sounds like fun, or at worst mundane, is imaginative. And we don’t just visualize one dangerous scenario, we can conjure up many. And all this while everyone else is assuming everything will go fine!

Often, the motto of anxious people is “Plan for the worst – hope for the best.” The best – a fun party with friends, a nice pleasure cruise, fun trying out water skiing – is not what they imagine. They imagine what will happen if the boat is too crowded; or it catches fire; or there is a tidal wave, hurricane or an iceberg (even if they are on a river). They contemplate hypothermia, drowning or sharks – even when they are water skiing on a lake in the middle of summer.

When Stephen King writes about these types of happenings, he makes movies. But for most of us, these thoughts are crazy, out of place, and debilitating. The constant focus on the unlikely but dangerous can drive friends and family away, creating a sense of isolation.


In the book Homo Prospectus, Martin Seligman et al hypothesize that we humans are designed to project forward. We use what we know from past and present experience, plus an ability to conjecture and hypothesize, to project future possibilities and evaluate them.

[Related: Emotional Intelligence is the Key to Unlocking Your Career Growth]

With anxiety, we project scenarios that are at the negative end of the spectrum. Our evaluation process goes a bit haywire. We spend a disproportionate amount of time contemplating and planning for the negative but most unlikely scenarios. We leave little time to contemplate the much more likely outcomes.

When we add in our tendency to look for evidence that what we believe is true – confirmation bias – and consider research that says that the brain cannot tell the difference between what is real and imagined, we have the perfect storm of anxiety creation.

Confirming Our Own Suspicions

About 10 years ago, I was to visit family in the UK. My husband was going on a ski trip to France and I was going to fly over with him and stay in London.

We made the arrangements, but a few weeks before the trip, my anxiety started. I imagined all the scenarios in which I would experience the thing I most feared: either I or someone else is sick. Every aspect of the proposed trip became tainted. I ruminated on things going horribly wrong. I reinforced my fears of flying with a recollection of a single trip where a small child sitting a few rows from me had been sick. Ah ha! Confirmation: flying = legitimate fear.

That is confirmation bias. What about the evidence of all the flights that friends, my husband and everyone else has taken with no such incident? I took that one instance and confirmed (in my head) my fear.

What about all the ways the vacation could be good? I never pictured having a fun time, catching up with family and friends, relaxing over nice meals. Not once did I think about having a break. My focus was on all the ways the trip could go wrong. Plan for the worst at its worst! I became so convinced that these “terrible” outcomes were inevitable; the power of my imagination was so strong, that, you guessed it, I canceled my trip. My husband flew on his own and had a totally uneventful flight. He had a great time in France, my sister’s family were not ill, my friends had fun without me. All I did was miss out. Imagination won the day, and I lost out on a fun trip.

But what if imagination is also the cure — or at least part of it?

Imagination and visualization help us to create our fear and anxiety because our brains cannot tell that we are not actually experiencing the thing that we imagine. So, the same is true if we imagine positive outcomes. Many people use this to good effect every day — take, for example, athletes who visualize the whole process of competing, imagining every move they will make, or musicians who visualize playing music while they are on the plane or in the cab going to the performance space.

When we learn to imagine positive scenarios, focus on the likely and positive outcomes, and switch our thinking to “plan for the best and deal with things if they go wrong”, our projecting into the future becomes more positive, productive and fulfilling.


What may come as a surprise is that as anxious, phobic and depressed people, we have some really amazing superpowers:

1. We are not stupid, we are intelligent.

2. Creativity abounds! We can see possibilities that others do not think of.

3. We are experts at using our imaginations.

Of course, it is not as simple as saying, “Well, just imagine positive outcomes," or “Just consider what is likely to happen,” but we can learn to challenge our habitual thinking. We can come to understand where that thinking came from. We can refocus prospective thinking and become the people we would like to be instead of the people we think we are stuck being.


Ruth Pearce is an experienced program manager, positive psychology practitioner and owner of A Lever Long Enough, where she helps project managers develop the skills needed to fully engage their teams. She is also the first THRIVE Programme consultant in the US - a program developed in the UK that helps people with anxiety to THRIVE. She is writing a book - The Project Management Effect: From Organizing to Engaging, and regularly presents on engagement at conferences including for PMI and the WBI Embodied Positive Psychology Summit

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