The Nuance

A Simple Insight to Help Worriers Rein in Anxious Thoughts

Teaching an anxious brain to picture happier scenes or scenarios helps against the inner dialogues that fuel daily anxieties

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
5 min readNov 19, 2020

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Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The most frightening movie monsters are the ones you never see. That’s according to a 2020 study of horror films that appeared in the journal NeuroImage.

For that study, researchers in Finland scanned the brains of 37 people as they watched a lineup of scary movies that included The Exorcist, Insidious, and eight others. The study authors found that people were much more frightened by unseen or implied threats than by ones that actually appeared on screen.

That finding isn’t too surprising: “Don’t show the monster” is a timeworn rule in film and television horror, and the great terror writer H.P. Lovecraft famously said that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” The common wisdom here is that, left to its own devices, the human brain will usually come up with something more disturbing than anything a writer or director could dream up.

And research on anxiety reveals that, much like that unseen movie monster, the most nagging and distressing concerns are typically ones we can’t picture very clearly.

“When people worry, and particularly for those with generalized anxiety disorder, there tends to be a lack of mental imagery,” says Colette Hirsch, PhD, a clinical psychologist at King’s College London. Her research has found that rather than fire up the brain’s projector screen, worry predominantly involves language-oriented parts of the brain. “People tend to worry in words or sentences and at a more abstracted level,” she says. “It’s as though they’re talking to themselves about possible negative outcomes.”

Hirsch is quick to add that certain subtypes of anxiety, such as social anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, don’t play by these rules. Both of those anxiety types tend to feature prolonged stretches of negative mental imagery.

But for most worriers, Hirsch says that words dominate. Teaching an anxious brain to picture happier scenes or scenarios may help people defang the inner dialogues that…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.