Imagery Can Heal: Feeling Low? Try a 'Flip-Side' Exercise for Perspective

When your mind creates an image that sets you back, try "flipping" its message to find a different meaning.


If you’ve had any association with mental illness you’re probably familiar with the proliferation of terminology that’s occurred, as well as the fact that it’s rare to be diagnosed with a single condition.

For example, depression is often accompanied by anxiety, insomnia, or an eating disorder. Behavioral disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder can, on the other hand, lead to the development of depression. 

There is a veritable Chinese menu of terms, and when someone throws 10 names at you it’s easy to lose track of where you’re headed.  Sometimes you need a focal point, a “ground zero,” if you will, a place from which to start building a healing strategy. My depression was accompanied by eating issues, sleeping problems, and even a few textbook anxiety attacks here and there.

But how did my mind bring the major message to the forefront? It was the mental image I created of myself.

A recurring picture commandeered my thoughts — I would wake with it in the morning, and it was the last thing I saw before falling asleep. It was Hiroshima or Nagasaki — not the mushroom cloud from afar, or the view of the city grid that appeared in the bomber’s sights from above — but the specter of gray ash and rubble that was left after the annihilation. 

Yes, that’s how I saw myself, as a pile of colorless waste that had no life, no movement, not even a hint of fresh air. This picture eventually receded as I improved, although recently I began seeing myself as a small, gray rock. I asked myself — is this supposed to be an improvement? I worried that the rock signified bad times to come. I didn't want it to take over my thoughts and push me in the wrong direction.

I’m not sure how it happened, but I gradually chose to view these images in a different way. Yes, ash is lifeless and colorless, but it's also light enough to float in the air to faraway places. It’s a wonderful fertilizer and provides much-needed carbon for new growth. Ash becomes diamonds; you can have a gemstone made from the remains of a cremated loved one in just a few months!

And rocks — yes, they’re hard, dull, sharp and somewhat boring. But they’re also incredibly strong, long-lasting, and do an awful lot to support us! I’d rather build my home on a rock than a swamp. When gathered together they provide shelter, or a wonderful base the fire needed for heat and light. Little plants and mosses can spring from their crevices. 

What I tried to do was “flip” the negative image into a positive one, not by changing the image itself, but by choosing to associate it with more encouraging words and thoughts. I decided to road-test this concept, and ran it by my friend Kimberly. When she feels down, she sees herself as a spore. When I looked a bit surprised, she explained that to her it signified being tiny, hard and impenetrable.

It was her turn to be astonished when I told her that spores were magnificent structures, beautiful and strong, and very resistant to destruction. We found gorgeous images of spores on the web, some with color enhancements. She’s an artist, and wasn't aware that they possess a symmetry and geometry that could be applied to her work doing Zentangles.

I told her that spores of the Aspergillus mold have been found in polar ice samples from thousands of years ago, that’s how enduring they are. She began to see her spore life in a different way, too. 

Another friend always saw herself trapped in a tunnel during dark times. A tunnel can feel claustrophobic and stifling, maybe even a bit damp, but it's often the best way to circumvent the risk in climbing up and down a big mountain. Perhaps it's an underground passage, in which case it can be safer, warmer and dryer than the outside world. It might provide you with a convenient escape route. In extreme circumstances, tunnels can be life-saving.

In exploring this concept with more people, I discovered that many don't have a picture come to mind when they're feeling low or despondent. Some said, "I just feel like crap," or use words to describe themselves, like "loser" or "useless."  Without a picture, the "flipping" strategy doesn't apply. But if one does arise, it seems to come out of nowhere, and is unique to each individual in its message of negativity. If that's the case, then the constructive aspects of the image are designed for our special needs as well.  

In my reparative work, I remind myself that the unconscious mind follows the path that it's given by our consciousness. When a destruction of nuclear proportions or even a hard, gray rock became impossible to dismiss, I taught myself to change my stance and view them differently. 

I am now grateful for the benefits and strengths I've discovered. It would be nice if they didn't pop up at all, but that's not the way I'm built. I say let the image emerge with its negative connotations, because now I can "turn it over" in my mind and see the beauty on the other side.

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Paula Rothaus May 09, 2012 at 07:49 AM
Helen, I don't conjure any specific image of myself if I feel down. I just want to be alone and have my 'space' to do whatever I need to do to uplift my spirits. This is usually something creative- painting on canvas or on my clothes, remodeling an old (or new) favorite dress, dyeing fabric, etc. As I write this, I realize that, perhaps, I see myself as that favorite old dress, and by remodeling or painting or dyeing it, I am healing myself.
Helen Evrard May 09, 2012 at 11:45 AM
Thanks Paula. I assumed images came to most folks, but I was wrong! You're lucky they don't invade your space - they make healing more difficult. I think your creative efforts are indeed very therapeutic. You are clearly leading your unconscious mind in the right direction.


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