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

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 fuel their daily anxieties.

“People tend to worry in words or sentences and at a more abstracted level. It’s as though they’re talking to themselves about possible negative outcomes.”

Why words flood the worried brain

For a forthcoming study in Current Directions in Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Arizona explored the neurological makeup of the human imagination, which includes the mind’s ability to anticipate and fret about future hardships. Like Hirsch’s research, the study finds evidence that worrying may tilt the brain away from vivid mental imagery and toward hazier, language-based patterns of activity.

“Individuals who often worry or ruminate tend to get stuck in negative, repetitive forms of thought that involve focusing on one’s feelings, problems, and symptoms,” says Jessica Andrews-Hanna, PhD, first author of that study and director of the Neuroscience of Emotion and Thought Lab at the University of Arizona. “Given the repetitive and habitual nature of such thoughts, memories and future thoughts start to lose their detail and become overgeneralized.”

In the study, Andrews-Hanna and her co-author Matthew Grilli divide the imagination and its associated brain networks into two systems, or “styles of thinking.” The first, which she calls “the mind’s eye,” is an image-oriented style that involves “thinking in a detailed and specific way” about a memory or a hypothetical event. The second system, which Andrews-Hanna calls “the mind’s mind,” is a word-oriented system that tends to produce reflective and abstract thoughts and activates parts of the brain that deal with language.

Everyone possesses and uses both of these systems, she says. But the word-oriented system seems to be dominant among people who frequently worry or ruminate.

Why does the worried brain seem to prioritize words over images? It may have something to do with the way an anxious mind turns inward.

“Anxiety is very interior-focused, whereas the exterior world is inherently imagery based,” says Matthias Mehl, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. (Some of his work has found that people who talk a lot about themselves — which traditionally has been viewed as a sign of narcissism — is actually an indicator of distress and negative emotions.)

Mehl points out that mindfulness training — which according to research can reduce anxiety, depression, worry, and rumination — shifts a person’s attention toward here-and-now sensory information and away from the self-directed and often verbal forms of inner dialogue.

“If you’re truly in the present and attendant to your sensory input, this is not verbal,” he adds.

Picturing a life without worry

If the language-oriented parts of the brain become overactive among worriers, image-based therapies might help turn down that overactivity. And Hirsch says she’s now using these insights to inform her clinical work.

“I tell my clients that worry is like a magnet, and words seem to make that magnet more powerful.”

When someone is worrying, she says it can help if that person takes a moment to think of a happy or relaxed scene. For example, you could imagine yourself in one of your favorite places, or you could recall a happy experience in detail. “It won’t last, but that kind of image might turn the volume down on your worrying,” Hirsch says.

These suggestions are in line with a lot of existing research. For example, spending time each week recalling positive memories has been shown to reduce stress and interrupt negative thoughts and feelings. Also, guided-imagery therapy, during which a person is instructed to imagine a certain place or setting in great detail, can also reduce anxiety. For a 2018 study in Frontiers in Psychology, people were guided through images of urban or nature settings. Both exercises led to significant reductions in anxiety, that study found.

“I tell my clients that worry is like a magnet, and words seem to make that magnet more powerful,” Hirsch says.

It takes practice for habitual worriers to recognize when their mind has gotten stuck in a whirlpool of unhelpful words or self-talk. (Here again, mindfulness techniques can help.) But with time and training, people can escape from that whirlpool or avoid it in the first place. By activating different areas of the brain, pleasant mental imagery seems to help them do that.

“These habits are hard to change, but you can change them,” Hirsch adds.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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