Imagination is defined as the ability of the mind to be creative and resourceful. Our minds use our imagination to cultivate problem-solving capacities, distill insight, expand hope, and develop visions and goals for our future.
When our imagination becomes dulled or listless, we lose what makes our lives full of purpose and meaning.
I can remember, early on in my motherhood journey, slowly and steadily shifting from being a creative, fluid, inspired thinker to an overly anxious, hyper-focused, “get-through-the day” kind of thinker.
In fact, if I pay close attention to my own patterns even now, I can see how the state of my creativity and imagination is directly influenced by the state of my emotional and mental well-being.
Many of us are familiar with the Rorschach test—those ink blots on paper that psychologists have used since they were introduced to the field in 1921 by Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach.
One of the reasons psychologists use the iconic inkblot tests is because it allows them to test and explore the “meaning-making” functions of an individual.
The whole reason inkblots are effective is because they contain no objective meaning in and of themselves. They’re truly just random inkblots.
But, humans are meaning-making beings. And imagination is a key player in our ability to make meaning out of the experiences of our lives.
The imaginative functions of our mind help us make sense of the reality around us. Our thoughts are constantly creating stories about what we see, hear, feel, sense, and experience around us.
And those stories drive the direction of our lives.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, in his book, The Body Keeps the Score, shares about his early work at the Department of Veterans Affairs working with individuals managing traumatic experiences from war.
He explains that trauma impacts our imagination in two ways.
It can cause us to repeat and retell painful memories over and over again so that a person continues to interpret their current reality through the lens of those painful memories.
Or the trauma shuts down imagination completely because the person feels their imagination cannot be trusted and will only generate pain.
Under extreme or chronic stress we can lose access to healthy imaginative functions and our stories about the world around us can become negative and fearful.
Once those imaginative functions start to numb out—life can have an overarching feeling of dullness.
Imagination is the vehicle by which we bring new life, inspiration, creativity, hope, and ideas into our consciousness. It gives us the capacity to direct our future in positive ways.
Chronic stress, like traumatic experiences, can have similar impacts to imagination in many people’s lives as well.
Over time, when our stress-response systems are exceedingly taxed, our bodies and minds become stuck in extreme responses.
Many women I’ve worked with over the years have felt that familiar toggle between a hyper-response to stress—manic energy, go-go-go mentality, and focus on getting things done—with the flip side, a hypo-response to stress, which feels like extreme exhaustion, flatness, and a sense of just checking out of life.
Nowhere in this unhealthy pendulum swing can the vital and life-giving functions of imagination be nurtured and grow.
I’ve worked for many years supporting women to restore their well-being through a multifaceted approach to wellness—and one of the most surprising (and delightful) tools has been engaging and nurturing a strong imagination.
When we move away from that chronic stress cycle and learn ways to engage the calm response in our lives—we begin to restore healthy mental and emotional systems.
We heal fatigued adrenal systems in our bodies, and we restore the necessary imaginative functions in our minds.
Here are three simple ways to begin cultivating a stronger imagination into your daily life—most especially when you’re feeling yourself stuck in that numbed out, despondent place.
1. Let Nature Guide You
Nature is a grand example of imagination at work.
We know being in nature heals, and I believe one of the reasons is that it engages our minds to expand into imagination and awe.
Take a walk in nature and give yourself time to just observe the tremendous breadth of variation in its beauty. Really look at the pattern of leaves, the arch of branches, the texture of bark, the formation of clouds. Getting lost in the complexity and beauty of nature evokes our own natural imaginative capacities.
2. Let Others Lead the Way
Consider letting other people’s thoughts, ideas, and reflections lead you toward generating and clarifying your own.
Choose a favorite blog or book and give yourself some time after reading it to write your own reflections on paper.
What do you think about what you just read? How would you express the author’s position in your own words? What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Where have you experienced something similar in your own life?
Letting others give you a place to get started helps when you feel like you have no idea what to get creative around.
3. Let Your True Self Give You Perspective
One of my favorite journaling techniques is future writing because it helps me tap into my wisest, truest self and gives me permission to take a wide-angle look at my life and find the perspective I may be missing.
Place yourself some time in the future—3–5 years in the future. Name your age, the ages or grades of your kids, the number of years you’ll be married—in order to anchor yourself into that place in the future.
Then ask yourself, from that place in the future, to talk about your life and yourself as if you are looking back at the current time.
Here are some ways to begin sentences: “I can remember when…. I recall feeling… I used to think…. I remember worrying about…”
And then, allow yourself to continue writing given your “new” perspective from the “future.”
Maybe you begin, “I wish I could have seen….. I wish I understood….. The truth of it all was ……I would never have guessed how things were going to work out….” and write in hope, healing, wisdom, and encouragement.
A powerful way to bring your life back into a healthy, calm, grounded place is to prioritize your imaginative functions and keep that area of your mind active and healthy.
Lisa Grace Byrne, MPH is the founder and director of WellGrounded Institute for Women’s Wellness and a passionate advocate for mothers’ well-being and vitality. Sign up for her free Clarity and Prosperity series and she’ll walk you through a guided process of self discovery.