When was the last time you thought about your imagination? If you’re anything like me, it may have been while playing pretend with your kids, or maybe laughing at the wild things they come up with while in imaginative play. The importance of imagination on a child’s development cannot be overemphasized. Children seem to have to play – it’s not a conscious decision they make, but an innate need.
Most of us were likely in touch with this need for imaginative play as children. However, as we grew older, it may have become less and less of an imperative. In our teenage years and early adulthood, we are socialized into social structures, take on more and more responsibilities, and become active players in the real world, rather than the imagined world.
While this is the natural way of things and how human development tends to work, some of us may reach adulthood and find ourselves feeling stuck. Maybe we’re doing things the way we’ve always done them. Maybe we feel stagnant in our relationships or career. Maybe we find ourselves spending a lot of our time ruminating about the past, or fearing the future. Instead of opening up to a world of possibilities, we may find ourselves feeling threatened by the unknown.
Sometimes, our relationship to imagination and possibility can be impacted by trauma. This might be especially true if one’s relationship to imaginative play was interrupted by trauma during childhood. Trauma responses can include hypervigilance, which is the body and mind staying in a protective state. For people who have experienced trauma, the world can seem like a place of danger, not a place of possibility.
In order to work towards a larger sense of inner safety, it’s important to validate those feelings of danger. There was a time when you did not feel safe or protected, and/or were not given the support or tools to work through those challenging emotions. However, for many of us, the threats that were present during our childhood are no longer with us. As our own caregivers, we can send messages to the inner self that we are safe and that we will take care of us. Creating a relationship of trust and care with the self by keeping promises to yourself, being intentional about the way that you speak to yourself, and doing work around boundaries can help relax your inner world.
Harnessing the power of imagination, then, as a way to access your hopes, dreams, values, and sense of direction, can be a powerful thing. For people with anxiety or depression, imagination can be another tool that they use for self-soothing. People with anxiety who might find that they spend a lot of time thinking about the worst-case scenario or the least-preferred outcomes (“My girlfriend’s not texting me back because she’s not into me anymore,” or, “My friend didn’t laugh at my joke so they must be mad at me”). An exercise of imagination for someone with anxiety might be to imagine the best-case scenario or an outcome that doesn’t implicate them personally (“My boss didn’t email me back right away, it doesn’t mean they’re unhappy with me, It could mean that they are busy”).
People with depression might benefit from similar imaginative exercises. Depression can tell us insidious messages about our self-worth and about our personal capacity to live well. Someone with depression might struggle with thoughts like, “I’m worthless,” or, “No one could ever love me.” Someone struggling with these kinds of thoughts could try thinking, “What if that wasn’t true? What if I am worth something? What if I am loveable?” While these strategies won’t “fix” depression or make the thoughts go away, they may offer an access point to harnessing the power of our imagination when we’re at our lowest.
It’s Pride month in Los Angeles and the power of imagination for our collective health is also on my mind. Before the Stonewall riots, the world could not imagine a culture that was affirming of gay people. Through demonstrations and defiant self-worth, the world’s imagination was expanded. The personal is political, and the more we can access our imagination to create a better reality for ourselves, the more likely it is that we can influence the collective imagination and create a better reality for everyone.
Curious about how to incorporate imagination into your mental health plan? Interested in exploring this topic with the help of a licensed therapist? We are here and ready to support you. Call or text (323) 388-5578 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.