Using Mental Imagery to Manage Stress

Jan 25, 2011 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mental imagery helped our ancestors survive for millions of years before people developed language. As animals developed the ability to move, they needed a way to take a mental map of their environment along with them. A tiger roaming his territory must have some kind of internal map of the area, in which his prey, their hiding places, water and potential dangers are all represented. A house cat running downstairs when she hears the electric can opener must have a mental image in her brain that helps her navigate the shortest path to her dinner.

At some unknown time in prehistory, the human brain's ability to map its environment in space developed into an ability to imagine its environment in time, and to be able to imagine a different environment. That evolutionary change is the mother of both creativity and our ability to worry, because things are frequently not the way we would prefer them to be. This discrepancy between the real and the imagined is the root of suffering and most stress.

In human history, pictures of human experience existed long before written descriptions. Drawings on cave walls in southern France predate the first written languages by at least 15,000 years. They testify to a well-developed visual appreciation of animals and events in our prehistory, and to our ancestors' ability to graphically represent their surroundings and experiences.

When we look at the earliest written languages, they tend to be pictorial, with pictures representing objects, and then gradually evolving to represent more abstract concepts. Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese ideograms are good examples of these pictorial languages.

The way intelligence develops in childhood also shows us that imagery is an older, more "time-tested" way of thinking than words. As infants, we begin to imagine and fantasize at an early age, constructing an inner world that is populated with the faces and voices of our parents, siblings, relatives, friends, pets, foods and other strange and fascinating elements of our new world. We learn to color and draw before we learn to read and write, and we spend a great deal of time in our inner worlds as we try to integrate the enormous amount of data we take in every day. Later, as we are taught to read, write and do arithmetic, our brains change, and more of our attention goes to learning the logical thinking that will serve us well as adults.

Unfortunately, once this type of "left-brain" education begins, few of us ever get taught how to use our imaginations skillfully to foster the stress-relieving skills of creativity, problem-solving and emotional intelligence. Our right-brain intelligence is often neglected and even discouraged in favor of rational thinking. This is a mistake with many adverse consequences.

In their book "Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions," psychologists Richard and Bernice Lazarus write, "Emotions are a vital tool for getting along in the world. They have evolved as they have in our species because they aid us in making our way successfully through life ... emotions and intelligence go hand in hand, which is why humans are ... the most emotional creatures on this earth."

That is why it is important for us to become more literate in imagery. It is the native language of our emotional/intuitive brains. It is the royal road to understanding the emotional, intuitive wisdom often hidden in our worries, health behaviors and physical symptoms.