Growing up is inevitable, and it’s natural to feel as though parts of your childhood slipped away over time. Take your sense of imagination, for example. When was the last time you played pretend, or daydreamed about something fantastical, like, say, the sheets on your bed actually being a fort that protects you from the roaring dragon outside its walls (aka your yappy schnauzer)? Holding onto your imagination is important, and it’s a shame that, when you cross that gaping bridge between adolescence and adulthood, most people tend to let go of that unlimited sense of creativity. But if you can channel and strengthen your imagination to come even a fraction closer to what it used to be when you were a kid, science says it might have some pretty amazing effects on your health IRL, too.
My parents tell anyone who’ll listen that they knew I’d be a writer someday just based on the imagination I had as a kid. I was always dreaming up worlds and creating characters — sometimes I’d even assign personas and lines to my siblings so that they could play along, too. And because I started writing stories when I was 10 years old, I have documented proof of some of my most fantastical realms, and the magical creatures I’d spent hours molding in my mind. Once in awhile I’ll feel a pang of nostalgia for them, but when I came across new research suggesting that a strong imagination might be able to help you work through everyday fears, I wondered if I could tap back into that boundlessly creative state of mind now that I'm in my 20s.
In a recent study published in the scientific journal Neuron, a team of scientists from CU Boulder and the Icahn School of Medicine recruited 68 participants and trained them to associate a specific sound with an uncomfortable electric shock. As per CU Boulder’s press release on the study, once the connection was instilled in their brains, the participants were then split into three groups, and were either a) exposed to the same shock-associated sound, b) told to imagine hearing the sound in their own head, or c) asked to imagine happier sounds, like birds chirping or rain falling.
Throughout the experiments, researchers evaluated the participants’ responses through brain scans and skin sensors. In the end, once the electric shock was taken out of the equation, and the participants no longer associated the sound with pain, the study's results showed that imagining the sound had helped them “unlearn” their fear. Marianne Cumella Reddan, the study's lead author, said in a statement for the CU Boulder press release that this research is the first of its kind to show that "imagining a threat can actually alter the way it is represented in the brain."
Of course, the study is preliminary, and relatively small, considering it only evaluated the responses of 68 people. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any truth to it. According to behavioral scientist, relationship coach, and creator of the Your Happiness Hypothesis Method, Clarissa Silva, your imagination is your mind’s “creative lab." And as you grow older, she explains, it doesn’t exactly disappear, but it does change to fit your new, adult self.
“As an adult, imagination isn’t always aligned with reality, so we dismiss the elements that are 'out there,'” Silva tells Elite Daily over email. And while your imagination might fade over time, it doesn’t get completely erased. In fact, Silva says that practicing mindfulness on a regular basis can help you tap right back into your imagination “to create a better reality” for yourself.
As for how your imagination might affect other aspects of your well-being, the researchers involved in the Neuron study concluded that "you can use imagination constructively to shape what your brain learns from experience," as per the study's press release. In other words, your imagination can help you learn to experience things IRL in a different way — including things you're normally afraid of.
Fear can come in many different forms and levels of intensities. If you experience chronic fear, to the point where your uneasiness is so severe that it disrupts your ability to function day-to-day, it's best to speak to your doctor, as you might be suffering from a phobia, which is a clinical anxiety disorder that can be diagnosed and treated with therapy and, if necessary, medication.
Non-chronic fears, however, can be worked through a little bit every day, and channeling your imagination might be able to help. “Our imagination is where our subconscious starts to bring our truly inner thoughts to the surface and to our conscious mind,” award-winning therapist, Shannon Thomas, tells Elite Daily over email. By opening your mind to these possibilities of what could be, allowing your imagination to “daydream, and opening up to our deepest desires and concerns that we may not be fully aware of, but that still influence our behaviors,” she says, can have a significant influence on your mental health.
On the other side of that, says emotional coach, author, and speaker, Corrie LoGiudice, is that your imagination is also attuned to your anxieties, which is why imagination can be such a powerful tool, particularly if you know how to navigate and control it. “If [your imagination is] constantly imagining the future as a dangerous and unfriendly place, or that certain events can only end in a negative outcome, then that's the environment you’re going to create for yourself in the future,” LoGiudice tells Elite Daily. But, if you can instead “learn to use your imagination to create visions of a positive future outcome,” she explains, that’s when your imagination can start to help you build a better stronger sense of self-confidence, and minimize the fear over time.
What's more, in general, having the ability to tap into your imagination as an adult can be beneficial to your health because it allows you to be creative, and even make light of an otherwise tough situation. For example, if you’ve ever heard someone say “find your happy place,” your imagination is the ticket to get you there. Evanye Lawson, MA, LPC, a licensed psychotherapist, speaker, and author, says that using your imagination can improve your ability to see things from a more positive perspective, even when it's hard to see the good in a situation.
“We can trick or imagine ourselves in a peaceful, happy forest versus in the present, chaotic reality,” Lawson tells Elite Daily over email. By doing so, both your mental health and your ability to be creative — through art, music, writing, whatever suits you — can improve as a result.
So the next time you find yourself sitting through a boring lecture, struggling to meet a work deadline, even if you just feel anxiety creeping in, try to tap into your imagination. Envision positive scenarios, and see how they affect your mood. If channeling your happy place in the corners of your mind makes you feel good, keep it up. If not, try a little harder next time. I promise your imagination is in there somewhere.