Therapists often use guided imagery techniques to help redirect the emotions and mental images of patients who have suffered from traumatic events, such as those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a new study, researchers wanted to find out whether these therapeutic imagery techniques could be used by healthy people to help optimize their emotional states and whether the techniques could be self-guided and developed at home without the help of a therapist.
“The close relationship between the human imagery system and our emotions can cause deep emotional perturbations,” said Dr. Svetla Velikova of Smartbrain in Norway. “Imagery techniques are often used in cognitive psychotherapy to help patients modify disturbing mental images and overcome negative emotions.”
Healthy people are also emotionally affected by the distinct images they recall from negative circumstances. Velikova explains that “if we visually remember an image from an unpleasant interaction with our boss, this can cause an increased level of anxiety about our work and demotivation.”
There is great interest in findings new ways to combat everyday negative emotional responses through imagery training. But she warned, “this is a challenging task and requires a flexible approach. Each day we face different problems and a therapist teaches us how to identify topics and strategies for imagery exercises.”
To find out whether people can train themselves to use imagery to optimize their emotional states, Velikova and co-researchers recruited 30 healthy volunteers to attend a two-day workshop in which they were taught a series of imagery techniques.
The volunteers learned how to cope with negative emotions from past events using imagery transformation, how to plan for future events and goals using positive imagery, and how to improve social interactions and enhance their emotional balance in daily life with similar imagery techniques. Then they spent the following 12 weeks training themselves at home for 15-20 minutes a day, before attending another similar two-day workshop.
The researchers compared the results of the participants’ psychological assessments and brain activity measurements using electroencephalographic (EEG), before and after the experiment.
“The psychological testing showed that depressive symptoms were less prominent. The number of those with subthreshold depression, expressing depressive symptoms but not meeting the criteria for depression, was halved. Overall, volunteers were more satisfied with life and perceived themselves as more efficient,” said Velikova.
Specifically, the EEG data showed significant changes in the beta activity in the right medial prefrontal cortex of the brain. Velikova notes that this region is known to be involved in imaging pleasant emotions and contributing to the degree of satisfaction with life.
The results also show changes in the functional connectivity of the brain, including increased connectivity between the temporal regions from both hemispheres, which Velikova attributes to enhanced coordination of networks linked to processing of images.
She concludes, “this combination of EEG findings also suggests a possible increase in the activity of GABA (gamma -aminobutyric acid), well known for its anti-anxiety and antidepressant properties.”
The findings suggest that self-guided emotional imagery training has great potential to improve the everyday emotional well-being of healthy people.
The researchers are now exploring how the approach affects the cognitive function of healthy people. With minimal professional intervention, this technique could be developed to be a cost-effective aid for those with subthreshold depression. It could also be promoted by businesses to help improve workforce morale and increase motivation and productivity.