Have You Ever….
Have you ever freaked yourself out in a dark room by imagining all of the scary monster, zombies, and bad guys reaching out to grab you?
Have you ever driven yourself almost to panic swimming in a swimming pool because you imagined Jaws swimming up to get you? (And I am sorry if now you have that image stuck in your head.)
Have you ever worried yourself into a panic because of a vague comment a friend made that you imagined was a thinly veiled criticism of you, only to find out later that the comment had absolutely nothing to do with you?
Have you ever made yourself physically ill imagining gross stuff?
Have you ever worked yourself into a panic, and wasted a lot of time, imagining all the bad things that could possibly happen to you, 99.5% of which never even came close to occurring?
If You are Anything Like Me…
If you are anything like me, the answer to all these questions is “yes”. I have done all these things and many more like them.
You probably have, too.
I will call actions like the ones mention above engaging in Worse Case Scenario Thinking, and I would like to point out that there is something fascinating about Worse Case Scenario Thinking. When you engage in this kind of thinking, your body doesn’t know that the situation you are imagining isn’t real.
Your Imagination and Your Body
For example, think of a time when you imagined scary things were reaching out to grab you in the dark. Remember how your body tensed up? Remember how you started breathing more rapidly and shallowly? You may have even started sweating.
Initially, it seems odd that our body would react in this way to monsters we have imagined that, obviously, are not really in our room and are not really going to harm us. On the other hand, perhaps it is not so odd when we realize that our body doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined danger.
So, when we start to imagine that we are in danger or that terrible things are going to happen in the future, and when we start to feel emotions of fear, panic, hysteria, our body thinks these threats are real, and it responds accordingly.
This is why, if you are like me, you can become physically ill and even almost throw up, not because there is, in fact, anything disgusting or gross around you but because people are talking about gross things, and you can’t help imagine it. (This happened to me all the time in elementary school—and sometimes at summer camp.)
Your Body and Your Mind
Your imagination can greatly affect your body’s stress level. In turn, your body can become so stressed out, it can affect your ability to think clearly and creatively.
For instance, have you ever become so stressed out imagining worse case scenarios that you can no longer think creatively or constructively about how to solve a problem? I know have.
The first time I remember doing this was in seventh grade when I encountered my first science project, and I got totally freaked out. As I recall, I came up with a very creative but crazy idea to make a cloud machine, which got me excited at first.
And then I had no idea how to execute my plans, and I spiraled into a black hole of stress and anxiety, in which I vividly imagined myself failing my science project, getting kicked out of school, and ending up homeless, wandering the streets.
I became so anxiety-ridden, I couldn’t even think of simple steps like “Ask Mom and Dad for help. Ask your teacher for help.” Instead, I just spiraled further and further down into my anxiety pit. And that’s the power of our imagination. Our imagination can not only cause stress signals in our body, it can also then, through these bodily signals of distress, make it difficult for us to think about constructive steps or potential solutions to our problems. (You can read more about the effect of stress, which our imagination can exacerbate, on the brain here.)
That’s the bad news about imagination and one of its potential effects on our body.
The Good News
But there is good news about our imagination as well. The good news is that just as we can stress ourselves out with our imagination and shut down our ability to think critically and creatively, we can also use our imagination to calm stress, to heal painful emotions, and to enhance our ability to think critically and creatively.
I first rediscovered the power of imagination one day as I was thinking about my propensity to engage in Worse Case Scenario Thinking. I remember asking myself, “Why do I always assume the worst will happen?” And then I followed up that thought with the question, “What would happen if I assumed that the best would happen?”
That question flipped an awesome switch on in my brain, and I suddenly felt optimistic, joyful, and hopeful. I knew that if I caused could cause myself a lot of stress, anxiety, and panic by practicing Worse Case Scenario Thinking, that meant I could also practice Best Case Scenario Thinking, and that I could bring myself a lot of peace, joy, excitement, and beauty.
With this realization, a whole new world opened up to me, and I felt connected again to the excitement I felt when I was a child and I used my imagination to draw; to make up fun games with my cousins; and to connect with the magic I always felt when I visited my Grandma and Grandpa’s house.
Shortly after this, I started listening to some guided visualizations to help me relax and feel safe (because I always feel unsafe when I engage in Worse Case Scenario Thinking). The visualizations helped me to use my imagination to relax tense parts of my body. They also helped me use my imagination to surround myself with images that made me feel loving, joyful, abundant, adventurous, and magical. I would often feel a deep sense of joy and excitement for hours after I did one of these guided visualizations.
Not only that, I found that my visualizations helped me look at the world, differently. Several of the visualizations I listened to at this time helped me imagine things like feeling energetic throughout my day or being surrounded by love or showered by abundance (and abundance in this case was the abundance of all good things.)
The more I practiced imagining these things, the more I noticed good things happening in my life. For example, when I visualized myself surrounded by love, I especially noticed people acting in a loving and kind way to me. And when I imagined myself surrounded by abundance, I became especially aware of all the goods things in my life. I also started finding money on the ground–like coins–or noticing especially beautiful flowers on my walks.
I think these things had always been there, but because I was picturing them regularly in my mind, I was better able to see them in real life. And as I did so, my days felt more adventurous, hopeful, and expectant.
Some people who practice visualization believe that our positive thoughts attract good things into our life. I look at it a different way. I think my life as always been full of good things, as well as bad things. But when I engage in Worse Case Scenario Thinking, I can only see bad things, and it makes me miserable. It also leaves me with basically zero resources to address problems I encounter or to connect with other good people and things around me.
Using My Imagination Like a Boss
When I practice Best Case Scenario Thinking and use my imagination like a boss, it helps me feel happier and more in control of my life. This doesn’t mean that I ignore bad things or fail to address them. Rather, it means that I make a conscious decision to focus on hope and awesomeness in my life and the world. It also means that I focus on the ways in which we (i.e. the human species) are headed in a positive direction and on all the resources we have at our disposal to make the world a better place.
When I use my imagination this way, I find that I have more energy to tackle problems in my life. I also think more clearly about the resources I possess and about how I can use them to solve problems.
Using my imagination like a boss allows me to make my imagination work for me. Worse Case Scenario thinking makes my stress and anxiety-fueled imagination be the boss of me. I don’t want to live my life this way.
It is not surprising that learning to use my imagination in this way has been extremely helpful to me. Children use their imagination all the time to help them develop their cognitive, emotional, and physical capacities. I would suggest that this is because when children use their imagination, they almost always engage in Best Case Scenario Thinking, and they are always the boss of their imagination.
Think back to a time when you imagined that you were a pirate or princess or firefighter or ballerina or astronaut or president or—if you were like me—a shrewd detective like Nancy Drew or a daring journalist like Lois Lane. In these scenarios, you almost always engaged in Best Case Scenario thinking, and you were the boss of your imagination. And in doing so, you had adventures that allowed you to learn things about the world and to develop your intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities.
Unfortunately, as we age, we often lose the ability to be the boss of our imagination, and we start to practice in Worse Case Scenario thinking. There are many reasons for this, but two of the reasons are unimaginative grown-ups who stifle imagination and also because we stop playing with our imagination. The two are really tied together.
There are a lot of unimaginative grown-ups who believe that the mark of being a mature adult is having no imagination. (I believe Harry Potter refers to them as Muggles.) The unimaginative adults usually call their state of mind “being realistic”. (And by the way, you can be realistic and practice Best Case Scenario Thinking, too.) And unfortunately, unimaginative adults are often threatened by people who do use their imagination. Sometimes this is because they are mean people who rain on everyone’s parade. But often it is because unimaginative adults are controlled by Worse Case Scenario Thinking and tend to use it as one of their primary coping mechanisms (albeit, it is usually a fault coping mechanism).
Therefore, imaginative adults (or even teenagers) threaten this coping mechanism, and so the unimaginative adults often unconsciously do all they can to discourage Best Case Scenario Thinking. As a result of this, starting in middle and high school, many students are no longer given a chance to practice their imagination. As they practice less and are exposed to more Worse Case Scenario Thinking, they get caught in this anxiety vortex and lose their ability to use their imagination like a boss.
Games You Can Play
The good news is that if you want to develop Best Case Scenario thinking and learn to use your imagination like a boss, you absolutely can. I have developed some imagination games that have helped me use my imagination like a boss. I will share more of them in the future, but here are two to get you started. I describe the games and some cool things that usually happen to me after I play them.
I like to play these games when I wake up in the morning; when I am falling asleep at night; or when I take time during the day to be silent, breathe, and meditate. The more relaxed you are, the easier it is to fully engage in these games.
My Favorite World Imagination
In this game, I state all the cool things I want to see happening in the world and just for a moment, I pretend that they are all true. For instance, I was playing this game the other day, and here are some of the things I stated:
Everyone is flourishing together in the U.S.
Everyone has more than enough.
People continually find creative solutions to make the world a more magical and joyful place.
The Earth is healing.
The other day, after playing “My Favorite World”, I started noticing a FB friend post about all these beautiful and whimsical Coronavirus masks she was making. I asked her if I could buy two. To my surprise and delight, she dropped two beautiful masks off in my mailbox and in return asked only that I donate money to God’s Pantry. Did this solve all the world’s problems? No, but it was a positive step in right direction, and it gave me more ideas about how I could work for love and justice in the world.
Playing My Favorite World has also helped in other ways. It has helped me figure out blog posts I could write, people I could connect with, and endeavors I could initiate or join to make the world a better place. Once again, I think these ideas and opportunities have always been present, but when I spend time imagining them, it primes me to notice them more quickly in my life and pursue them.
Imagination games like My Favorite World can be especially helpful in times of social and political turmoil like we are now experiencing. Of course, addressing these problems requires more than just thinking and imagination. However, if we get stuck in Worse Case Scenario Thinking, it can be really hard to imagine any way out of the problems we are facing as a nation and world. In fact, Worse Case Scenario Thinking can convince us that there is no way out.
Imagination Games like My Favorite World can give us a pathway out of our feelings of hopelessness, even if temporarily, and the opportunity to search for solutions. There really is something to the saying, “Visualize world peace.”
The Greatest Grocery Store Imagination
I play this game when I feel like I am lacking something important in my life and I have feelings of scarcity, disconnection, or impoverishment in my mind, emotions, or body. I believe that there is something larger, wiser, and more loving and creative than me that wants to give me beautiful things that are both for my good and the good of the whole world. (You can read more about this here, here, and also here. The last post especially explores how we can believe in a loving presence in the midst of great suffering in the world.)
In this game, I imagine myself going through a grocery store with a shopping cart. This grocery store is full of things I need to nourish me emotionally and spiritually. So, I imagine the shelves lined with boxes of love, human connection, peace and tranquility, space to think, moments of silence, a sense of worth, beauty, all kinds of abundance, people who want to help me, etc.
As I am falling asleep at night sometimes, I think about anything I feel like I need for my good and the good of the whole earth. And I imagine going through the Greatest Grocery Store and putting boxes of those things in my grocery cart.
The awesome thing about the Greatest Grocery Store is that it is a store in which you can have anything you need for your good and the good of the whole eart, and you don’t have to pay for it. It’s just there for you and everyone else. The shelves are always stocked, and they will never run out, and there is no such thing as taking too much for yourself in the Greatest Grocery Store. That store only stocks products that help both you and everyone else, so the more you take for yourself, the more you help the world, too.
Every time I play this game, I go to sleep feeling peaceful and hopeful. I played it last night, and today I woke up with a sense of joy and expectancy. I spent the morning snuggling with my cat, writing, walking in the forest, and doing schoolwork. I also laughed a lot with my husband.
You Can Be the Boss of Your Imagination, Too
I assure you that if you are willing, and if you practice, you can switch over from Worse Case Scenario Thinking to Best Case Scenario Thinking. And I believe if you do, you will be more joyful, peaceful, and creative.
Using your imagination this way may or may not solve all your problems. What it will do is put you in a great position to notice the awesome things you currently have in your life and to be more open and aware of possibilities for bringing more awesome things into your life and the world around you.
In the future, I will write about more imagination games you can play.
 I say rediscover because I knew the power when I was a child.
 The visualizations I used at this time were by Jon Gabriel. He has a lot of guided visualizations and meditations for weight loss, but I like to use his meditations to feel safe, protected, and powerful. The one I love the most for this is the Living Goddess meditation.
 And by the way, I refer to playing with my imagination as using my imagination like a boss or Best Case Scenario Thinking. A lot of people just call it visualization. You can read about the benefits of visualization here.