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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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Last Updated on June 8, 2018

15 Ways Meditation Benefits Your Brain Power and Your Mood

15 Ways Meditation Benefits Your Brain Power and Your Mood

These days, you feel like a robot.

You drag your feet into work and you have to deal with your boss. You’re hustling this year yet again to try and make more money than last year.

You come home to kids who always need something from you and all the things that need to be done around the house barely gives you any time to connect with your spouse.

You don’t even have a moment to yourself and it’s beginning to stress you out to the point of burnout.

But life doesn’t have to be this way.

What if there was a simple solution that’s been scientifically proven to decrease your stress levels? Something that will clear your mind of all the clutter and help you feel refreshed each morning with more focus and energy? Like you’re ready to take on the world?

This is exactly what meditation does.

In fact, over 50 years of scientific research has unearthed a whole bunch of evidence of all the different life changing meditation benefits. Here are 15 ways meditating regularly has been shown to significantly improve your brain function and mood.

1. You get fluent at making good decisions.

If you’re stressed out often, you’ve probably had those moments in your life where you made bad decisions as a result. Whether it’s details you missed for an important project or a big mistake you made that negatively affected other people, you know what it’s like when you’re not at your best.

What’s being impaired in moments like this is a skill called executive function.[1] Simply put, executive function is the part of your brain that helps you get results for goals you are trying to achieve. It’s what helps you do things like manage your time, pay attention, plan, organize and remember details.

Studies have shown compelling evidence that it helps people who have impaired executive functioning skills from conditions such as Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).[2] A study run by Dr. Lidia Zylowska showed 78% of adult participants with ADHD experienced a reduction of overall ADHD symptoms when they regularly used meditation practices.[3]

2. You become an expert at handling stress.

Moments of stress triggers your amygdala, also known as your “lizard brain”. It’s the primal part of your brain which is associated with fear and emotion and its primary function is to help you survive.

High levels of stress can make you enter into lizard brain mode where it is dominated by the amygdala. It can be described when one “flips his lid” and is controlled by overwhelming emotion such as fear or anger. Think about it as times you’ve been in a heated argument or deathly afraid of something that might hurt you.

When you are in this mode, other important parts of your brain like the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of your brain that is capable of higher level thinking such as decision-making, self-awareness, empathy and morality, are turned off

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Because the amygdala isn’t as great at logical thinking for the less straightforward situations of daily life, meditation can help decrease your stress levels by first getting you out of your lizard brain and back to being in the present moment, which then empowers you to respond to stress in a much better way.

For example, you might be in lizard brain mode thinking all the time about how to survive by making more money, but through meditation, you connect with what’s most important despite all the stress. You realize before it’s too late that you’ve been ignoring the more important things like connecting with your kids and maintaining intimacy with your spouse.

MRI scans have shown that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the amygdala appears to shrink. And as the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex becomes thicker.[4]

Basically, science has shown that meditation can help you become better at handling your stress by activating the part of your brain that makes better decisions.

3. You naturally remember useful information.

Imagine a time where you told yourself a list of items you wanted to buy at the grocery store without physically writing it down. By the time you get to the store, you’ve forgotten what some of those items were.

This is when your working memory capacity has fallen short. You use your working memory when you need to place a sticky note in your mind so that you can use it in the near future. The problem is sometimes those sticky notes fall off by the time you need it.

If your working memory is the information that goes on these mental sticky notes, then your working memory capacity is how long you can have these sticky notes stay on before it falls off. The longer time you have to hold information, the more time you have for reasoning and comprehension to occur.

Meditation has been shown to improve your working memory capacity.

One study had about 200 teenagers assigned to either a mindfulness meditation practice, yoga, or were wait-listed as a control group.[5] Results showed that the teenagers participating in the meditation group had significantly better working memory capacity than those participating in the other groups.

4. You become an amazing smooth talker.

If you’ve ever had a time when you were talking with someone and you had trouble finding the right words to express what you were trying to say, you’ve had a moment where your verbal fluency wasn’t at it’s best.

​Verbal fluency as defined by verbal skill expert, Min Liu, is the “ability to find the right words at the right time or in the right situation.”[6]

When sixty-three University of North Carolina, Charlotte students with no meditation experience volunteered for an experiment that studied the effects of meditation on their verbal fluency, results showed that there was a significant improvement in verbal fluency in those who engaged in mindfulness meditation versus those who did not.[7] And to add to these impressive results, the group who meditated only did it for 20 minutes a day over four day period.

5. You develop laser-like focus.

With all the information at our fingertips in this digital age, it’s easy to get distracted. We are exposed to an average of 10,000 marketing advertisements a day and it’s hard to discern what the important things we should focus on are. The artificial A.D.D. culture we’ve created has made us have significantly shorter attention spans due to information overload.

Taking as little as 20 minutes a day for five days to engage in meditate has improved one’s attention, which shows the power of simply making a subtle shift and spending a tiny fraction of your day simply being present.[8]

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6. You superpower your brain.

All the signature folds you see on the outer surface on the brain that look like windy roads have been formed to help increase the speed of brain cell communication. The formation of these folds is known as gyrification. Since your brain doesn’t have any space inside your skull to get bigger, it undergoes gyrification to increase the capacity of your brain function.

Long-term meditators have been shown to have a larger amount of gyrifcation compared to those who don’t practice meditation.[9] More interestingly, a direct correlation was found between the amount of gyrification and the number of meditation years, which is proof of the capability of our brain to continue growing even as adults.

This means the more you meditate, the faster and more efficient your brain becomes at processing information, which can be especially useful in moments where you need to think fast.

7. You are better at problem solving.

When your brain is solving a challenging problem, it requires the skill to focus attention on what’s most important amongst a large amount of information.

A simple example of your brain at work engaging in such conflict resolution is when you’re at a loud party talking to a friend. If your brain didn’t detect and resolve all the conflicting stimulation around you by helping you ignore all the noise around you and focus on your friend, you’d probably have a sensory overload.

The same principal applies when you run into larger conflict resolution challenges. You need to be able to determine what’s most important and focus your attention on it.

Multiple studies have shown that participants in groups who partook in meditation practices had performed higher on evaluations that tested conflict resolution skills compared to groups that didn’t.[10]

This goes to show why those who meditate generally have a lower stress level. Their brains are more adept at conflict resolution.

8. Your creativity starts to flourish.

The Harvard Business Review has conducted experiments that have shown that 10-12 minutes of mindful meditation practices were enough to boost creativity.[11] The majority of participants who were part of the meditation arm of the study reported that it helped them “clear their minds, focus more on the task at hand, and come up with original solutions.”

Mindfulness meditation gets ideas flowing directly to your neocortex, which is where all of your creative thinking takes place. It’s no surprise why some of the most leading companies have introduced meditation in the workplace as a result:[12]

“The Walt Disney Company was an early adopter of meditation in the workplace, as they noticed a dramatic increase in creativity after employees meditated on creative solutions. General Mills is another company which reports improved innovation as a result of sitting in stillness and has meditation rooms available to their staff. Google has an in house mindfulness program called ‘Search inside Yourself’ and has built a labyrinth for mindful walking meditations.”

9. You kill your anxiety and experience more peace.

About 6.8 million Americans suffer from General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and even if you’re not one of them, chances are you at least worry about something on most days.

When worrying becomes a normal part of your daily life, it can take its toll on you and you find yourself losing sleep, being tense and have a racing mind that won’t sit still.

Meditation has been long established as an antidote for anxiety. Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist recruited fifteen healthy volunteers with normal levels of everyday anxiety to test out this theory.[13] The participants had no previous meditation experience. After engaging in four 20-minute mindfulness meditation classes, it was reported that anxiety was noticeably reduced in every session that they meditated.

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The brain imaging scans taken of these individual revealed that meditation was providing anxiety relief by activating the anterior cingulate cortex which is one part of the brain that helps with the control of worry. Scans also revealed decreases in the grey matter of the amygdala which is the part of the brain that plays an important role in anxiety and stress.

10. Your brain stays young forever.

Most of the neurons in your brain are contained within a portion known as grey matter. It’s within the grey matter where essential things such as memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control take place.

After you reach 30-years-old, your brain begins to slowly shrink.[14] But evidence shows that those who keep their brain in shape by engaging in regular meditation practices can prevent the shrinking altogether.

One study from UCLA showed that in long-term meditators, age-related grey matter loss was less pronounced compared to those who didn’t meditate.[15] Brain scans of the participants who had been meditating for an average of 20 years even showed more grey matter volume throughout their brain than expected.

11. You become great at adapting to changes.

Cognitive flexibility is the vital function that’s been described as the ability to adapt behaviors in response to changes occurred in the environment.

Imagine if you started to live in a new country, your level of cognitive flexibility will determine how fast you can adjust to all the changes to your environment such as having the steering wheel on the opposite side of the car, learning the local language and figuring out the nuances of the new culture.

Meditators performed significantly better than non-meditators as examined in a study which brought participants through exercises that tested cognitive flexibility.[16] The study indicated that mindfulness is closely linked to improvements to cognitive flexibility.

So if you’re ever having trouble adjusting to a new situation, maybe a little meditation will solve your problem.

12. You begin to win your battle with the blues.

A research review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of Internal Medicine in January 2014 showed meditation was about as effective as an antidepressant.[17]

Another study on mindfulness meditation published by psychologists from the University of Exeter found it to be better than drugs or counseling for depression.[18] They found that after four months of meditating, about 75% of patients felt well enough to stop taking antidepressants.

Even if you aren’t suffering from clinical depression, meditation will uplift your mood if you’re feeling down.

13. You grow stronger and experience less pain.

Mindfulness meditation has been shown in clinical trials to reduce chronic pain by 57 percent and that seasoned meditators can reduce it by over 90 percent.[19] Brain scan studies show that meditation can physically alter the structure of the brain so that it no longer feels pain at the same level of intensity.

Hospital pain clinics now prescribe mindfulness meditation to help patients suffering from all kinds of diseases such as cancer, arthritis and heart disease.

Just like many other studies researching meditation benefits, you can see the results of meditation within a short time frame even if you’ve never done it before.

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Wake Forest University conducted a study that took 15 healthy participants and performed brain scans while inducing pain. A certified instructor took them through mindfulness meditation over the next four days and by the fifth day, there was about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity ratings while they were meditating compared to when they weren’t.[20]

14. Your ability of self-control goes up another level.

If you’ve ever found yourself giving into the temptations of eating that tub of ice cream when you’re on diet or lighting up that cigarette when you’re trying to quit, meditation might be the exact thing you need to give you that extra push of self-control.

In fact, meditation can even help people recover from various types of addictions. Meditation activates the anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex which are the parts of your brain related to self-control.

One study showed that smokers who were assigned to do 5 hours of meditation spread over two weeks showed a 60% reduction in smoking compared to the smokers who didn’t meditate.[21]

15. You gain an overall sense of happiness up another level.

If you’ve ever experienced the pleasurable experience of the “runners high,” then you know what it feels like to have a release of endorphins in your brain. While endorphins are neurotransmitters that your body uses as a natural painkiller, it’s also responsible for the overall sense of happiness you sometimes feel.

When a study compared 11 elite runners and 12 highly trained meditators, results showed that both groups had noticeably elevated levels of endorphins after running and meditation. More interestingly, the pleasurable effects of endorphin release were measured in these groups and the meditation group scored higher.[22]

The easiest way to start meditating

On top of all these amazing meditation benefits, meditation is easy to do and you can actually do it right now.

Here’s a very straightforward and simple step-by step instructions that you can immediately implement to start experiencing the benefits of meditation:

  1. Set aside 5-10 minutes
  2. Find a safe space with little distractions.
  3. Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor with your back straight.
  4. Take a few deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth
  5. Close your eyes or focus your gaze on the object you’ve chosen.
  6. Breathe normally and gently bring your focus to the breath.
  7. If your mind wanders, gently steer it back to focus on the breath.
  8. When finished, just take a moment to let the effects of your meditation feeling sink in before going about your day.

If you want some more live guidance or would love to learn more about meditation, Headspace is an amazing app that I use regularly. They do an amazing job of explaining what meditation is and walk you through how to do it even if you’re totally new to the concept.

The road to your best self

The ultimate solution to being happier in life isn’t to try and make things easier, but to make yourself stronger. Meditation will develop the mental strength you need and lift your mood.

Imagine yourself starting your day feeling ready and prepared to take on what comes. Stress keeps knocking on your door but you let it right in and send it right back on its way out.

You’re able to stay focused on what matters to you most and you feel intimately connected with yourself again. You feel like you’re in your prime. You’re no longer a mindless zombie who’s going through life in a daze. You’re finally living instead of just existing.

So take a moment, practice being present and soak it all in. You’ve now just figured out how to keep your life beautiful.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

[1]Web MD: What Is Executive Function?
[2]NCBI: Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: the importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring
[3]NCBI: Mindfulness Meditation Training for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Adulthood: Current Empirical Support, Treatment Overview, and Future Directions
[4]Scientific American: What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do to Your Brain?
[5]NCBI: A Randomized Controlled Trial Examining the Effect of Mindfulness Meditation on Working Memory Capacity in Adolescents.
[6]Min Liu: How To Increase Your Verbal Fluency
[7]Science Direct: Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training
[8]Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America : Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation
[9]Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: The unique brain anatomy of meditation practitioners: alterations in cortical gyrification
[10]NCBI: Focused attention, open monitoring and loving kindness meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity – A review
[11]The Harvard Business Review: Can 10 Minutes of Meditation Make You More Creative?
[12]Huffington Post: “How Mindful Meditation Boosts Creativity and Innovation”
[13]Psychology Today: How Does Meditation Reduce Anxiety at a Neural Level?
[14]Brainscape: 25 Facts About Your Gray Matter You Should Know
[15]Frontiers in Psychology: Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy
[16]Science Direct: Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility
[17]Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of Internal Medicine: Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being
[18]Psychology Today: Curing Depression with Mindfulness Meditation
[19]Psychology Today: Can Mindfulness Meditation Really Reduce Pain and Suffering?
[20]The Atlantic: Treating Chronic Pain With Meditation
[21]Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: Brief meditation training induces smoking reduction
[22]EOC Institute: How Meditation Boosts Melatonin, Serotonin, GABA, DHEA, Endorphins, Growth Hormone, & More

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