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Can Perception and Imagination Change How You Handle Challenges?

The power to modify your perception and behavior is a tool you already possess.

Key points

  • Perception governs willpower. How we perceive an issue or problem can change outcomes for better or worse.
  • Creative imagination and active imaginal technique can modify maladaptive perceptions.
  • Optioned thinking and imagined potentials rehearsal can improve the way people engage with issues.

Can the way we see things define their outcomes? American Sociologist William Isaac Thomas, who is attributed with the idea of the Thomas Theorem, once said, “Real facts are the ways in which people come into and define their situations.” How we see things greatly affects how we handle what we are given day to day.

I see this idea play out every day in how people interpret moment-to-moment situations and experiences within themselves. All too often, it is the stronghold mental position someone may assume in regard to the issues they encounter, and how they decode and define such experiences, that determines the final outcomes of how things ferment internally.

We suffer more often in imagination than in reality. —Seneca

Perception is perhaps one of the most powerful conductors of thought affecting how we see reality and store experiences. It is our use of perception that conveys many of the possibilities for changing the negative mental and tangible expanse of outcomes associated with all things in life from anxiety, pain, nightmares, stress, sports performance, job performance, and more. Learning to modify perception, however, may not be as hard as you think.

How we can influence perception

Perception governs willpower. For instance, how we perceive an issue, a problem, a job interview, or an illness, colors the way we will eventually engage and deal with it. Dr. Stefan Hofmann, a professor of psychology and director of the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory at Boston University, states the following, “We are always engaging with our environment to make sense of it, and so it really matters how we perceive things.”

Even further, how we shape perception is influenced by another major contributor, our creative imagination. Humans have a great gift, and it is the ability to imagine things, scenarios, places, and more. It is perhaps one of our most powerful inherent tools, and yet many people don’t really rely on it. In using the term active imaginal, I am referring to the use of specific induced imagery or “forced imagery” that can help modify how one views a variety of things (Albright, 2012). In fact, the use of active imaginal technique has been greatly utilized by CBT practitioners for many years to help people overcome challenges with issues like phobias, negative internalized views of self, and even pain desensitization among other things.

Perception, pain and active imaginal technique

The active imaginal technique is currently being used with cancer patients to help them deal with chemotherapy and pain management in beneficial ways. Such practices are engaged at hospitals like The Center for Behavioral Oncology, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. But the variety of potential uses doesn’t end here. Studies have revealed the benefits of imaginal exposure associated with a large spectrum of mental health gains, including reduced worry, reduced negative emotion, reduced ruminative behaviors, and improved symptoms of issues like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (Robertson, 2018).

Perception influenced through imaginal strengthening

You can see the power of this in athletes who know the benefits of shaping perception. Assistant Texas A&M Commerce Track and Field Coach Glen Sefcik mentions, “As a track and field collegiate and international coach, I routinely employ visualization techniques that are extremely effective in helping athletes enhance their performance.”

Recent science demonstrates just how powerful imagination can be in shaping perception. In one study, volunteers were asked to play a simple sequence of piano notes for five days. The next group of volunteers was asked to “imagine” playing the notes on a piano. Brain scans were conducted on all groups and there was surprisingly similar brain activation (Pascual-Leone et al., 2005).

Simply imagining can unlock powerful changes in our brain chemistry. We can help people change their perceptions of many things through Imaginal Exposure (IE) by drawing on conceptual imagery, thus improving one’s ability to desensitize to anxiety-invoking situations.

Mental imagery
Source: "Lazy_Bear /Adobe Photostock". "Giant robot and child/licensed for use".

Helping a young client with night terrors

In this case, the child suffered from sleep disturbances where night terrors were part of their presenting issues. I decided to utilize active imaginal technique to begin reshaping the night terrors and the child’s strong perceptions and fears of going to sleep. I had the child imagine a strong protector. And if they awoke from a nightmare, they were to practice re-imagining the dream with their protector. The child kept the practice, even naming their protector, and utilizing that aspect of their imaginal potential to eventually defeat night terrors, which had perseverated for quite some time.

Two ways you can engage perception and modify challenges holding you back

1. Practice “optionized thinking." One of the key ways we can change strong perceptions is by relaxing our beliefs by choosing to accept other possibilities. This kind of adaptive thinking can allow room for mental expansion and growth. In every situation, we have a choice. No one knew this better than Viktor Frankl, the famous Austrian psychologist, who showed us through his own survival mechanisms deployed as a prisoner and survivor of Nazi concentration camps. Knowing you have options is powerful medicine. Start by allowing this possibility to change cemented thinking. Ask yourself, is there room for other possibilities here in what I have experienced? Is there something I can learn from this experience about my own self-agency? Journal the possible answers to those questions and reflect on what you uncover.

2. Imagine the new potentials through "rehearsal." You can do this any time of day for 10 minutes. Find a quiet spot where you can be alone. Take a few deep breaths with your eyes closed. At first, your objective and critical thinking may want to challenge you as you begin this exercise. Think of those thoughts as butterflies. Just observe them as they flutter around and eventually imagine them flying away. Then, for whatever behavior you seek to change, create a mental scene. Remember, a mental image is a thought with sensory qualities (Bresler et al). Hold that image and scene and now “optionize” a newer response behavior and outcome you desire. If it is pain management, imagine modifying the pain. If it’s a reaction you typically have such as anger, imagine a scene where you practice reacting with control and empathy. The sky is the limit, but practice is key.

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Albright, Thomas D. (2012). On the Perception of Probable Things: Neural Substrates of Associative Memory, Imagery, and Perception. Neuron, 74(2), 227–245.

Bresler, D. E., PhD, & LAc. (n.d.). Raising Pain Tolerance Using Guided Imagery. Practical Pain Management.… (n.d.). Retrieved August 14, 2023, from

If You’re Feeling Anxious, Try This 2,000-Year-Old, Neuroscience-Backed Hack. (n.d.). Time.…

Pascual-Leone, A., Amedi, A., Fregni, F., & Merabet, L. B. (2005). The plastic human brain cortex. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28, 377–401.

Robertson, D. (2018). The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioral Hypnotherapy. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.‌

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