The Link Between Make-Believe and Mental Health

Related Articles

Most of us have fond memories of playing imaginary games as kids. Whether you were a princess at a royal ball or an alien on a space mission, these games often led to some of our happiest memories (and may have even supported your emotional development). As we grow up, most of us have also stopped using our imaginations as frequently. But what if I told you that “make believe” has benefits for adults also?

While true role-playing games are less common amongst adults, any activity that provides a mental escape can have positive impacts on our mental health. In this article, we’ll explore some of the many benefits of “escapism” in order to help us understand how we can benefit from a little make-believe in our grown-up lives.

Imagination Helps Us Face Our Fears

A 2018 study found that our brain reacts similarly to imaginary situations as it does to real life. This research has extremely promising implications for exposure therapy, in which a patient is exposed to fears and phobias repeatedly in order to lessen their fear response. The study found that imagining a threat repeatedly in a safe place (without negative consequences associated with the threat) can actually change how our brain reacts to that threat in the future. Researchers hope to apply these results to treatments for a variety of mental health issues, from anxiety disorders to phobias.

Imagination Helps Us Relax

Our imagination can not only help us face fears, but it can also provide simulated relaxing experiences. Even imagining yourself doing something relaxing, like lying on a beach, can actually relax your brain and body in real life. Really, it comes as no surprise that meditation is so popular! In fact, guided imagery, in which someone talks you through a series of images for you to imagine, has been shown to reduce anxiety significantly. Imagery is powerful – even when that imagery only exists in our minds.

Imagination Boosts Our Self-Confidence

Many of us imagine anxiety-inducing situations before they happen – but not always in a positive way. Most of us tend to gravitate towards thinking of all the worst-possible ways a situation could happen (yes, giving a speech in your underwear is up there for worst-possible outcomes).  But imagining the situation ahead of time and imagining what success looks like in that situation can actually help us feel more confident.

What’s more, imagination may actually play a role in achieving success. The most famous example of this is among athletes. Research has been happening as far back as the 1980s into the phenomenon of successful mental imagery (imagination) in athletics. Namely, why do successful athletes benefit from visualization exercises? Today, many Olympic athletes note that their use of mental imagery before competition helps lower nerves, and many athletes even credit their success to the many times they imagined success beforehand. While scientists have many theories for how exactly this works, there’s really no question that imagining a scenario beforehand can not only help boost your confidence but may even boost your performance.

Imagination Motivates Us

Imagination is a huge part of the motivation. While we often try to talk ourselves into doing things we may not want to, like exercising or eating healthy, recent research found that visually imagining the future rewards from that activity is a more effective tool for boosting our motivation to do that “dreaded” activity. As the study explains, greater use of mental imagery is associated with higher “anticipatory pleasure” – in other words, visually imagining an activity helps boost our mood by also allowing us to experience the rewarding parts of that activity in advance. Visual imagining can actually create positive feelings before we’ve even done the activity, increasing our motivation, while logical reasoning cannot.

How to Boost Your Mental Health with Make-Believe Activities

Hopefully, you’re convinced that there are some clear mental health benefits from allowing yourself to escape into your imagination every once in a while. But how can we access those benefits? Here are a few tips and tricks.

1. Manage your imagination. We know that imagination has the power to make our brain react – so it’s important to try and keep an eye, so to speak, on what you allow yourself to imagine. Of course, this is often easier said than done, but if you’re able, try to pay attention to your thoughts and reflect on how your brain might be reacting.

2. Play. This sounds so simple! And yet, many of us grown-ups don’t spend nearly enough time actively playing. This can be as simple as playing a quick game of cards or engaging in games that really get our imagination going with a complex plot line and problem-solving. Some of the best examples are life-like puzzles like escape rooms or role-play games like Dungeons and Dragons. After all, you’re unlikely to worry about your real life while you’re escaping a haunted castle or battling an evil wizard. These kinds of games can also help you boost your confidence when you overcome challenges and exit victorious!

3. Read a book. Studies show that even a single half-hour of reading can significantly reduce your blood pressure and heart rate. While scientists don’t yet know exactly why that is, it may have something to do with the fact that books allow you to escape from your own life for a little bit. So sit down, pick up a good book, and let it take your imagination to new places.

4. Do a guided meditation. We now know that our brain reacts similarly whether we’re actually lying in a hammock in a peaceful forest or just imagining it. Give guided meditation a try, as it can help guide you through calming imagery that will help you relax your mind and body. Or simply conjure a calming scene on your own and imagine you’re really there for however long you need! (Hint: a 2018 study found that guided imagery is particularly effective when you imagine yourself in nature.).

However you choose to exercise your imagination, you’re likely to experience mental health benefits – whether you know it or not.