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The Llewellyn Encyclopedia

Visualizing Fear Away

This article was written by Keith Randolph on May 10, 2002
posted under Creative Visualization

Psychologists and psychiatrists increasingly make use of visualization techniques to deal with patientsí fears and anxieties. Two psychiatrists independently devised methods of using negative imaging for positive purposes.

One of them, A. Beck of the University of Pennsylvania, has described his work with a man who was troubled by uncontrollable fantasies about being in a car as it crashed into a wall. Whenever the image appeared in his imagination, the patient would be overwhelmed with fear, as if the event really were happening.

First, Beck taught his patient to let the image vanish when Beck clapped his hands. Next, he taught the patient to make the image disappear by clapping his own hands.

That accomplished, he taught the patient a technique whereby he could call up the image at will. The patient now felt he had control over the image and was no longer captive to it. When he realized this, the image lost its power and the associated anxiety faded away.

Beck and other therapists have developed an-other visualization technique that they call "forward time projection." This technique involves visualization of a subject of anxiety, such as a forth- coming medical operation, and the projection of images related to it, into the future. The patient is instructed to see himself or herself six months after the operation, when he or she is well and happy again. This enables him or her to put his fears into perspective and to see that life will go on beyond the crisis of the moment.

Behavioral therapist Joseph Wolpe has invented a technique that works in the opposite way. He has his subjects overcome their fears by visualizing images associated with the cause of their phobias or anxiety. For example, someone who is afraid of cats is instructed to imagine the least frightening scene he can think of in which cats appear. The resulting image produces a mild level of anxiety which patient and therapist work together to eradicate entirely.

Then they go on to a more anxiety-producing image, until the fear associated with that is similarly eradicated. The process continues, with ever more frightening cat-related images concocted and overcome, until the patient is free of his irrational fears.

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