Worried about whether you'll make the deadline, or an impending apocalypse? Gabrielle Oettingen, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at New York University and well-respected author of Rethinking Positive Thinking, has discovered a new truth about anxiety. Her latest research published in Frontiers in Psychology supports the belief that mental contrasting, a visualization technique, can help reduce our fear of future events. From achievement-related worries to romantic ones, mental contrasting helped study subjects feel more at ease.
"[W]hen you mentally contrast the thoughts and fantasies about a desired future with the main inner obstacle of reality standing in the way, people will find clarity about what they want and can achieve, and they invest the effort to fulfill their wishes and attain their goals," Oettingen told PsyPost.
A good deal of Dr. Oettingen's research to date debunks blind positive thinking to achieve desired outcomes, which she maintains is correlated with lower effort and lower success rates, in favor of mental contrasting. In this study, mental contrasting is used to visualize a fear-based future—not a desired future, which is important to note—in contrast with the present positive reality that's preventing it from happening.
The research presented is part of a 20-year line of study about what motivates behavior change. In the first of two parts, participants were directed to imagine an impending E. coli outbreak. Those who thought of the outbreak in the context of the preventive measures in place today experienced lower anxiety than those who were told to envision the outbreak alone. In the second experiment, participants thought of a future personal event that was currently causing anxiety. Once again, those who thought about the feared outcome and also imagined the present moment's positive aspects had less anxiety about the future than those who thought only about the feared outcome.
Historically, mental contrasting has been a successful tool in prompting real behavioral change toward desired future dreams. Instead of thinking only positive thoughts like, "Yes, I got this!" imagining the desired outcome along with inner blocks preventing it helps effect behavior change "via nonconscious cognitive, motivational, and feedback processes," according to Oettingen. So next time the future's got you down, a good old reality check may be all you need to ease your anxiety.