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The Power of Negative Visualization: Minimize Fear and Anticipatory Anxiety

The Power of Negative Visualization: Minimize Fear and Anticipatory Anxiety

In the back of my mouth are two lonely wisdom teeth patiently awaiting their long overdue eviction notice. They need to be pulled. Two of my four wisdom teeth were extracted three years ago and a week later I was supposed to make an appointment for the remaining pair to be pulled. Instead, because my first experience in the torture chamber, ahem, back room of the dental office, I avoided it. For the last three years, I’ve successfully dodged a myriad of follow-up phone calls from the dentist and well-meaning reminders from my wife.

I won’t go into the details but the procedure didn’t go smoothly. It was painful and a little terrifying.

I am now one of the 10-15% of people that are scared enough of the dentist that they avoid ever going. (Different from the 75% of people that experience anxiety but still go). But I know I’ll eventually have to overcome the fear and make the appointment.

This got me thinking about fear, anxiety, and emotional suffering caused by the anticipation of future events and how we can overcome it. The Stoic Philosophers practiced something called Negative Visualization. This is the practice of imagining undesired events, such as the death of a loved one, so that when the event inevitably occurs you are emotionally prepared to deal with it. It’s dark stuff to think about, there’s no denying that, but it could be helpful, especially to someone with a terminally ill loved one whose death in the near-future is expected.

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In addition to helping someone deal with a future event such as death, it also helps them better appreciate the time spent with loved ones. In William Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy he describes this idea by comparing two fathers – one who uses negative visualization and one who does not:

“To see how imagining the death of a child can make us appreciate her, consider two fathers. The first takes [this] advice to heart and periodically reflects on his child’s mortality. The second refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. He instead assumes that his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second. When he sees his daughter first thing in the morning, he will be glad that she is still a part of his life, and during the day he will take full advantage of opportunities to interact with her. The second father, in contrast, will be unlikely to experience a rush of delight on encountering his child in the morning. Indeed, he might not even look up from the newspaper to acknowledge her presence in the room.”

In this way, negative visualization is a powerful tool for helping someone appreciate anything they value in their life. Simply imagine losing something important to you or being forced to live without it. A greater appreciation will naturally follow.

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Negative visualization is also used in business. There it is known as a pre-mortem and is enacted as a strategy at the beginning of a new project to dissect imagined scenarios where that project has failed to determine what could potentially lead to that failure.

Adjusting the Strategy: Using Negative Visualization to Overcome Fear and Anticipatory Anxiety

With a little tweaking one could also apply the idea of negative visualization to overcome the fear of an upcoming event, such as my inevitable tooth extractions. Overcoming fear and anxiety is different than overcoming grief and sadness, thus it requires a slightly different approach. Instead of simply visualizing the event that one fears, they would visualize something much worse.

If I imagine something far worse than getting my teeth pulled, such as James Franco cutting his own arm off with a pocket knife, like he does in the movie 127 Hours, then my procedure, complete with numbing medication and proper dental tools, doesn’t seem so bad.

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This helps turn my focus away from the fear of a negative outcome and onto hope for a positive one. It helps me focus on the obvious benefits of my situation over James Franco’s character’s situation in the movie.

At the dentist, I will be either sedated or numbed so there should be no pain. The dentist will be using the proper tools to remove my teeth so It won’t be a miserable marathon of agonizing pain like it would be when cutting your own arm off with a pocket knife. (I’m going to squeeze that visual into this article as often as I can!).

This technique of downplaying an event by imagining something far worse is used in other situations with different objectives. For example, my dad would often “sugar-coat” things rather than tell me the bad news upfront.

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As a teenager, before I had a driver’s license, I would have to call him to come pick me up from work. Even when he knew he wouldn’t be able to leave the house for 30-45 minutes, he would tell me he’d be there in 10-15 minutes. While this particular scenario still ended in me being frustrated when he didn’t show when I expected him (and I don’t agree with its usage), he still eliminated the frustration it would have caused me to hear upfront that I would have to wait for him.

Salespeople use this technique too – they call it softening the blow – when they have to tell a client the cost of their service.  If the actual cost of said service is $500, they might joke with a customer and say it’s going to be $1500.  When the client’s jaw drops, the salesperson says, “Ha ha, just kidding, it’s only $500.” The visualization of a far-worse scenario softens the blow of the real thing. Cha-ching – sale made.

The Stoics may have been the first to put negative visualization into regular practice, but similar methods have been applied by everyone from psychologists to my dad. It’s widely used and seldom recognized but it’s effective and it can help to both avoid suffering and amplify enjoyment and gratitude. Simply put, it’s a tool to help us manage our emotions.

Consider visualizing James Franco cutting his arm off with a pocket knife. Then go make a dentist appointment.

Featured photo credit: Frank MckEnna via unsplash.com

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Chris Egan

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Published on October 5, 2020

What Are Creative Problem Solving Skills (And How To Improve Yours)

What Are Creative Problem Solving Skills (And How To Improve Yours)

I think we’re all familiar with that feeling of needing to solve a problem, trying way too hard, getting frustrated, and then throwing our hands up in defeat. For example, when my editor assigned me this topic, the structure and concept of the piece weren’t instantly clear to me. I had to problem-solve to figure out how to even begin. But problem-solving isn’t quite so linear. It’s not just a matter of brute force. You can’t just muscle your way through. This is where creative problem solving comes in.

Creative problem solving is about using what we know about how the brain works to come up with outside-the-box solutions to creative problems. Sure, we can do things the same way we’ve always done them. Or we can try creative problem solving, which means we spend time ideating (a.k.a. brainstorming), collaborating, ruminating, and refining to land on better and more novel solutions than we could have if we tried to force or rush a solution.

Stages of Creative Problem Solving

There’s no right or wrong way to try creative problem solving, but there are some stages that can help you integrate it into your creative process. Here are the 4 stages of creative problem solving

1. Ideating/Brainstorming

If we’re using creative problem solving, we’re not just going with the first idea that pops into our heads. Brainstorming is crucial to come up with more novel solutions.

One of the most important things to keep in mind during brainstorming is that this is not the time to evaluate or judge ideas. The goal of ideating is to come up with as many ideas as possible.

There’s an improvisation rule called “Yes, And” or the rule of agreement that can help you get the most out of your brainstorming sessions.[1] The idea is simple. If you’re brainstorming in a group and someone tells you an idea, you need to go along with that idea. That’s the “Yes” part of “Yes, And.” Then, you can take it a step further by trying to add to that person’s idea.

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Let’s say you and your team are trying to figure out how to rebrand your shoe company. Your colleague says you could use a mascot. If you’re using improv’s “Yes, And” rule, you might agree and say that the mascot could be a shoe or a sock or a lonely sock looking for a shoe.

During the ideation stage, no one should be worried about which ideas are good and which are bad. Everyone is trying to come up with as many ideas as possible, and everyone should be trying to make the most of everyone else’s ideas.

“Yes, And” can also work if you’re creative problem solving alone. Instead of discarding ideas, you should be saying yes to your ideas, writing them all down, and trying to make all of them as workable as possible. But before you get too far in your creative process, it’s important to run your ideas by someone else.

2. Collaboration

I know sometimes you don’t want to share your ideas with other people. Maybe you’re self-conscious or you just don’t think that your idea is ready for prime time. However, it’s important to step out of your comfort zone and let other people join your creative process if you want to reach the best possible creative solution.

When we’re working in a team, it’s important to not judge each other’s ideas until we’re safely in the final stage of the creative problem-solving process. That means no critiques, no evaluations, and no snarky comments. Not yet, at least.

The reason to hold off on evaluating ideas at this stage is that some people tend to shut down if their ideas are judged too early. There’s a concept called creative suppression that occurs when people stop a creative pursuit temporarily due to feeling judged, shamed, or embarrassed.[2] Even worse, creative mortification is when judgment, shame, or embarrassment makes you quit your creative pursuit altogether.

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When you’re collaborating with others while creative problem solving, you don’t want to shut anyone down. The more people who are actively engaged in the creative process the better.

In improv, there’s something called “group mind.” The basic idea is that a group can come up with a better solution than any single individual. It makes sense since each person in the group enters the creative process with their own strengths, knowledge, background, experience, and ideas. That means that when the group is working harmoniously, the best contributions of each individual will be reflected in the team’s solution, making that solution far better than what any individual could have come up on their own.

So, find someone you trust and lay the ground rules for your collaboration. Tell each other that you won’t be judging each other’s work just yet to bring out the best and make it as creative and effective as possible.

3. Pause

It can seem counterintuitive to pause during the creative process. But to tap into the creative unconscious parts of your brain, you need to stop forcing it and let your mind wander.

The part of your brain that you’re using to understand this article right now is not necessarily the part that’s going to come up with the most novel solution to your problem. To start using your creative unconscious brain, you need to take a break.

Have you ever had that experience of struggling with a problem and then effortlessly figuring it out while you were showering or walking the dog? That’s your unconscious brain doing the heavy lifting.

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This part of the brain can’t be forced into creative problem solving, so stop consciously obsessing about your problem for a while. Take a walk. Go for a drive. Let your mind wander. Dream. This gives your unconscious mind a chance to sort information and come up with some truly novel solutions.

The bonus to letting your unconscious take over is that it’s effortless. Conscious thought requires you to burn lots of energy, while unconscious doesn’t. So, stop trying so hard and let ideas come to you.

4. Refine

At some point, you’re going to have to start evaluating, eliminating, and refining your ideas to get to the best solution. But if you’ve brainstormed, collaborated, and ruminated enough, you should have plenty of material to work with.

An Example of Creative Problem Solving

I think it’s helpful to walk through an example of creative problem-solving in action. Let’s go back to the example of me writing this article.

First, I was presented with the problem, so I started brainstorming and “Yes, And”-ing myself. I thought about everything I already know about creative problem solving and did some preliminary research, but I still didn’t have a structure or theme to tie my ideas together.

Once the problem was marinating in my mind, I started talking to people. I talked to an old friend about my initial ideas about the article, but I still didn’t have any words on the page just yet.

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Then, one morning, the article seemed to come fully formed while I was showering. I could see which examples would work best and how to structure the article. So, I sat down to write and refine the ideas. During the refining stage, I swung back to the collaboration stage when my editor further refined and improved my ideas.

It’s important to remember that these four stages of creative problem solving aren’t linear. They’re circular. After I refine an idea, I can go back to brainstorming, collaborating, and pausing as needed to develop and improve that idea.

Bottom Line

Creative problem solving is, first and foremost, creative. You have to give yourself time and space to be able to reflect and ruminate. It’s also important to collaborate as necessary to improve your ideas with the help of other people.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you can’t force creative problem-solving. Forcing it only leads to frustration and failure, so give yourself some time and a team you trust to come up with the best possible solution to your problem.

More About Creative Problem Solving

Featured photo credit: Per Lööv via unsplash.com

Reference

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