Can imagining how you’d handle stressful situations, even emergencies, actually make you better at facing them in real life should they ever happen?
So for instance, you replay in your mind what you’d do if you awakened to the smell of smoke and saw a blaze of flickering orange outside your bedroom door.
You’ve rehearsed — inside your mind — over and over how you’d respond.
Then, at 3:00 in the morning, it actually happens! And you excel in this unexpected emergency.
Don’t let others convince you you’re neurotic just because you “practice” handling emergencies by imagining being in a crisis situation.
Rehearsing in my mind many times what it’d be like to have to dial 9-1-1 in case one of my elderly parents suffered a medical emergency…actually paid off when one morning, at 3:15 a.m., I had to do it.
My father had blacked out, fallen and was having cognitive issues as a result of head trauma.
I’d been staying with them to assist with his recovery from total knee replacemnt surgery.
I deftly dialed 9-1-1 and calmly gave clear, concise and efficient information to the dispatcher.
I’ve been called neurotic by family members and coworkers learning that I have a habit of imagining stressful events or emergency situations.
Again, this paid off when one morning I witnessed my parents’ beloved White German shepherd having his first seizure.
On several occasions prior, I had imagined an unidentified medical emergency with the dog that required me to pick him up and hurriedly carry him to the car in the garage, while commanding my father or mother to get behind the wheel so we could speed him off to the vet clinic.
And by golly, that’s exactly what happened that morning.
As though playing out a well-rehearsed script, I picked up the German shepherd, commanded my mother to open the garage and start the car, and dashed through the hall, through the laundry room, down three steps and into the garage — just as I’d always imagined — and placed his dazed body (the seizure had stopped by the time I had scooped him up) into the backseat.
Pay No Attention to Naysayers: Imagining Stressful Events Helps You Prepare for Them in Real Life
At least one coworker had told me that no matter how many times I play an emergency situation out in my head, it would never prepare me for the real thing.
She gave me that infamous spiel, “You never know how you’ll react to something until it ACTUALLY HAPPENS.”
“Research shows that visualization helps with preparing for real life experiences,” says Patricia Celan, MD, a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada.
“For example, athletes can prepare for a competition by visualizing success; test-takers have better results if they mentally walk themselves through the exam process in advance; and people can prepare themselves for surgery if they visualize the process.
“Mental practice has proven benefits!”
But do you really need research to understand that if you imagine stressful events often enough, you’ll be that much more prepared to deal with them in real life?
What you imagine actually has carryover to real movements of your body and thought processes. Imagining things actually trains the brain to be wired for the actual event.
Years ago I’d sometimes imagine using a double fist X-block above my head to break the fall of a wooden beam or baseball bat coming down on me. I physically practiced it, too, but imagined it far more often.
One day while playing volleyball I dove for a ball and ended up on the floor on my back.
This coincided with at least one person crashing into the net near a pole.
The pole was coming down at me. Without any thought, my arms flew up into the double fist X-block and trapped the pole less than arms’ length from my face.
Athletes are told to envision their performances under numerous variables to prepare for the actual game.
Springboard divers, figure skaters and gymnasts sit in corners, eyes closed, playing out their routine inside their minds.
It’s all the same process: Conjure up the activity inside your head, and this carries over to doing it for real — whether it’s sport, a stressful interaction with your boss at work, or an emergency situation.
Dr. Celan is a post-graduate trainee in psychiatry, working in diagnosing and treating patients with psychiatric conditions. She is passionate about psychotherapy, especially in trauma, anxiety and depression.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.