The Coping Kete

Monthly Archives: September 2014

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No. 156: Extend the Image

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

… practice using extended imagery as a way of coping with unhelpful thoughts of the future that hold you back.

Often future-predicting thoughts come to us as images. We ‘see’ ourselves making a fool of ourselves or feeling awkward or finding something unpleasant or ‘failing’ in some way. In real life, events keep unfolding after that moment. Everyone moves on. Someone helps. We learn from our mistakes, solve problems, come away stronger. But our minds usually only give us a flash of the worst bit. This week,  practice seeing the extended view.

Take a minute or two each day to practice extended imagery so you are familiar with it during times of distress. At your chosen time each day, sit for a moment just breathing and tune your thoughts to the coming week. As you notice images surfacing in your mind, observe and describe the images to yourself and then imagine what might happen next, and after that, and after that, until you can take the image all the way forward into the future. Instead of stopping with the image of us feeling tired and unmotivated doing some chore, we could carry the image forward to seeing ourselves resting, guilt-free, with a small sense of accomplishment afterwards. Instead of stopping with the image of ourselves embarrassed or uncomfortable arriving somewhere, we could carry it forward three weeks when the meeting is a distant memory or a year down the track with some new friends.

It can seem risky to stay with a distressing image our mind has predicted and extend it out. Our first instinct is often to stay away from the thought (and the situation we’ve imagined). It can seem like staying with it would make the emotion worse. But by extending it out beyond that single worst threat moment, we can learn to send our minds safety signals about that threat in the wider context of our lives.

This can be tricky to do during times of distress if we are unfamiliar with the strategy. The temptation can be to use the strategy to linger over a series of possible worst moments or to to linger over that one moment. If you notice this happening, try extending the image even further, jump forward in time past the image you are stuck on, or extend the image out for the other people present – how will they feel about it the next day/month/year?

As you practice extended imagery, you might also need to practice using the impartial observer voice that goes with most mindfulness exercises. Extend all the way forward until you get to a point in time, when the current predicted image falls into perspective. Maybe you discover that all the consequences are bad ones; that can be good info to attend to as well. If that’s the case then we really need to change the course we are on, not our thoughts about it. Time to shift strategies. Try seeing what someone you trust thinks.

Practice daily with your thoughts of ordinary upcoming situations until you are used to this kind of strategy and have figured out how to make it work for you. We each have our own methods of getting in our own way and you’ll have your own barriers to work around too. Sometimes we are simply too distressed for our minds to allow us to adopt the long view and we need to do a bit of grounding or self-soothing first.

When you are comfortable and familiar with extending images, add it to your Personal Coping Kete as a strategy for times of stress and distress. When you find yourself upset or anxious, tune into the images your mind is throwing at you and visualise extending those images forward in time.

During moments of distress, we are often stuck on a particularly distressing image. By moving our minds beyond that single imagined moment, we might find some perspective. Even if something terrible has just happened and our lives are irreversibly changed, we might see that in many years time we may have found a way to adapt and make meaning out of the experience.