Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


The Visualization Everone Does - Even If They Don't Believe In Visualization

Even if you don’t believe in visualization, I’ll bet you practice at least one form of it sometimes.

Most people have heard of visualization – clearly imagining a desired outcome. Many people use it hoping to increase their chance of success.

Other people consider visualization New Age fluff. They deride those who recommend it.

However, even though they scoff, they’re often dedicated practitioners of a specific form of visualization.

In this form, they dwell on an outcome to the point of obsession. They imagine in such detail that they actually experience emotions and shift their physiology.

In fact, this form of visualization may be the most commonly applied. The only problem with it is that it focuses on negative outcomes. It’s usually goes by its common name: worry.

Think about it. Worry is really just a form of negative visualization.

A person worries by vividly imagining an undesired outcome.

People say they can’t visualize, but they have no difficulty worrying. With no coaching at all, they’re able to conjure up vivid images of the feared event or outcome. They have no trouble enhancing the images with gruesome details of any possible negative consequence.

Some people are really quite creative as they do this.

Asking the same person to imagine a positive outcome stymies them.

It’s ironic that master worriers often dismiss positive visualization as New Age fluff. Then they visualize away, only they specialize in the negative.

I’m not quite sure why they consider negative visualization (worry) a responsible, mature use of their time yet denigrate the positive version of the same activity.

In reality, most awful things people worry about never happen. As Mark Twain expressed it: “I’ve experienced many terrible things in my life, most of which have fortunately never occurred.”

Vividly imagine something and you do experience it. Not only that, you might be charting your future.

Athletes know this. They use visualization to imagine their success – whether it’s a perfect golf shot or a personal record in a race.

I’ve found it useful to prepare for performing surgery. When I performed major operations, I mentally rehearsed them the night before. I imagined making the incision and obtaining exposure. I’d mentally go through the technical aspects in precise detail. I imagined difficulties I might face or anatomic variations I might encounter. Then I imagined how I would handle them. Naturally, I imagined a very successful outcome.

Maybe it was only superstition, but I always thought the operations went better when I did that.

However, there’s a proven added bonus for spending your time imaging positive outcomes. It makes you happy. (1)

Worry, on the other hand, accomplishes no good.

Now, I’m not talking about evaluating a grim situation to decide what action is most appropriate. That’s responsible and appropriate.

By worry, I mean repeatedly dwelling on grim outcomes when no action is possible. Worry itself won’t resolve the situation. It only makes you miserable.

For example, worrying about your teenager driver won’t get them home safely any sooner.

What worry does do is poison your present moment. You imagine now, in the present. If you think disturbing, negative thoughts, you’re making a choice that leads you to suffer in this moment. You aren’t experiencing where you are and what’s actually happening now. Instead, you’re experiencing what might (or might not) happen in the future.

Not only that, but worrisome thoughts and emotions drive your body to release hormones associated with stress. Over time, this has a very detrimental effect on your wellbeing.

Some people become habitual worriers. For them, it may be difficult to stop. I’ll give some specific advice on how to deal with habitual worry in the future. For now, know that it is possible to change.

A good start is to imagine positive outcomes for a change. You can do it for task specific events, such as my examples before of athletes or my preparing for surgery.

But why not do it just for fun?

As children, we daydreamed naturally. We easily imagined joyfully. As we grew, most of us daydreamed less and worried more.

There’s no need to go into why we changed. It’s enough to know that as mature people taking responsibility for our lives, we are in control. We may have unconsciously drifted into patterns of thought that didn’t serve us. Now that we recognize what’s going on, we’re back in charge. We can choose how we use our mind and to what end we direct our mental energies.

1) King; Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27: 798-807

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