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Imagining a brighter future.

Updated: May 2, 2022

This week’s blog post comes from Taryn Hutchinson who started her PhD at King’s College London in 2019. Taryn’s research project is: Imagine a brighter future: Development of a school-based positive imagery intervention to target anhedonia in adolescents. In her post she starts by asking us to imagine a perfect day on holiday… so just read on!

Imagine yourself lying on a beach on a hot summer’s day. The sky is bright blue and there’s

not a cloud in the sky…in front of you is a deep blue sea that stretches across the whole bay…and you are surrounded by golden sand. Imagine that you can feel the warmth of the sun on your skin and the sand between your toes...there’s a light breeze that you feel brush past your skin, which takes the edge off the heat from the sun beaming down on you. Imagine you can smell the salt from the sea and the sun cream on your skin…imagine you can hear people around you, playing bat and ball on the beach and splashing around in the sea. Imagine the taste of your favourite drink, quenching your thirst on this hot day…take a moment to imagine this.

How did you find that? How do you feel? Hold onto these observations because we’ll be coming back to them later in this blog.

Background: depression in young people and current treatments

Depression is most likely to start during adolescence and can have a negative impact on schoolwork and social activities. If untreated, adolescent depression can lead to even more serious mental health problems in the future. Despite this, psychological treatments for adolescent depression are hard to access and perhaps more concerning, are only partially effective. This is because current treatments focus more on reducing negative thoughts and emotions in depression, rather than boosting and utilising positive emotions. So, after treatment a young person may feel less sad, but does this mean they feel better? Often with the current treatments it seems to be a case of good enough. Therefore, more recent treatments of depression are trying to boost positive emotions to help improve well-being in young people.

What is mental imagery and how does it affect young people’s emotions?

Mental imagery is what I asked you to do at the beginning of this blog. It is often described as ‘seeing with the minds eye’ or seeing pictures/images in your head. When asked to think of a memory, people often report being able to see this memory, as though it is a film playing over again. So, going back to those questions at the beginning – what did you notice as you imagined that? What emotions did you feel? I know for me, I felt relaxed, content and very ready for summer to arrive!

So how does all of this link to depression?

Negative imagery is thought to maintain depression because research has shown that negative memories are more vivid in depressed young people than young people who have never been depressed. Additionally, depressed adolescents have more vivid negative images of the future. Furthermore, a lack of positive future imagery has been consistently linked to depression in both adults and young people. These results show that mental imagery plays a significant role in young people’s emotions.

Why are we using mental imagery to treat depression in young people?

Firstly, current treatments for depression largely rely on techniques using words, but research has shown that mental imagery is more closely linked to emotions than words are. For example, imagining your favourite food gives you a stronger emotional response than reading the word of your favourite food – give it try! Secondly, we know that mental imagery is involved in maintaining depression, so we should be targeting it. Thirdly, research has shown that enhancing vividness of positive future imagery can promote positive emotions, which is important as current treatments are not as good at this. Lastly, positive future imagery has been shown to increase resilience to stress, which is important because adolescence is a highly stressful period of life, with lots of changes.

So how do we use mental imagery with young people?

My supervisors and I have developed a four-session, school-based, positive future imagery intervention to help boost positive emotions in young people. Unlike in the example at the beginning where I asked you to image yourself lying on a beach, in our sessions, we ask the young person to generate their own image of something that they are looking forward to (both short-term and longer-term goals). What is similar, is the level of detail we ask the young people to go into when generating these images - we ask them to engage all their senses to build up a really detailed image. Although early days, initial feedback has been positive from young people and I’m excited to continue delivering this intervention – watch this space for what we find!

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