I just returned from a few days “off the grid” and have been amazed at the conflict between my desire to hold on to the feelings and mood of my respite and the pull to fall immediately into the habits and patterns I was so glad to leave behind. I worked a little yesterday to put myself back into the tempo and peace of being back at the island park we visited. I imagined feeling the rocking of the boat, hearing the water lap the shore, the birds, the smelling the wind, the woods, and the beach. For a moment I was there, then my cell phone played its tune; I saw a virtual stack of email waiting to be sorted, read and answered; and I was reminded I need to call the appliance repairman because the refrigerator isn’t working right. The serenity of the previous moment was gone.
Neuroscience has shown repeatedly that our imagined experiences are as “real” to our brain as our physical experiences. We have the ability to use visualization to improve physical functioning. It takes focus and repetition, but even an athlete can improve performance by repeatedly imagining her successful moves. This kind of practice can assist us emotionally as well as physically. Imagined experiences can also inhibit or otherwise impair our functioning.
One of the difficulties with anxiety and depression is that we create and repeat emotional scenarios that feed the fear and certainty of rejection and loss. Our self-talk is increasingly pessimistic or critical. We lose sight of possibility, of alternative explanations, of changes toward the positive. Anxiety takes on a life of its own, so that our fear is about the feelings of anxiety, rather than the specific circumstances or triggers. With depression, we lose memories of previous better times, and create a belief that things never were better and never will be. But there can be change, and it can be change for the better.
I remember many years ago when visualizing and affirmations were being taught in management classes. I was a state social services administrator, and we were experiencing severe funding and staff cuts. Remaining staff members were becoming discouraged and burned-out. The agency provided a motivational speaker at a management conference, and he worked hard to pump us up. After a morning of identifying example after example of the power of affirmations, visualizing success, and modeling success, we broke for lunch. My director turned to me and said, “This is really good stuff. It’s just not for situations as bad as ours.”
Yes, it is. We might actually need it more than the people who use it to deal with inconvenience and discomfort. The thing is, it’s hard to do. It’s hard to get started and it’s hard to keep practicing. It takes discipline. It takes action. It takes repetition. It helps to have support, to share your goals, to help you see options. But it is ok to start with just a little at a time.
Choose one thing to change: be specific, be focused. Reward approximation when it occurs. Approximation is the process of getting closer to what you want to have happen. Think of teaching a child to talk. You don’t wait until they can say, “Could I have a drink of water, please?” to reward them. WaWa or LaLa is close enough to start with. That’s approximation – you are rewarding movement toward the goal. Do the same for yourself.
Remember, this forum is not intended to be therapy. I have no way to view your body language, hear your tone of voice, or see if your words and your displayed emotions are matching. These are essential to effective communication and great tools for the therapist (and for the consumer when reversed.) I will attempt to be as helpful as I can. I will refer you the best I can to needed services. Even though I will not be your therapist, I am a health care professional bound by law and ethics to act to protect persons from harm. I am required to report my concerns of harm to self or others, and suspected abuse of children and vulnerable adults. I am located and providing these services in Washington State.
Again, I am open to communicating directly with you here. If you have questions or concerns, please leave a comment. I will attempt to address the content if I can.