Human ability to generate feelings through imagery could be the key to a breakthrough in the treatment of mental health problems

A leading psychologist has claimed that humans’ ability to generate feelings through imagery – as, for instance, becoming sexually aroused through fantasy - could be the key to a breakthrough in the treatment of a range of mental health problems.

“Everyone knows that it is possible to become sexually aroused without a sexual object being present,” Paul Gilbert, professor of psychology at the University of Derby and a leader in cognitive behavioural therapy research, told the annual conference of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

“It shows that a basic biological programme can be triggered by thoughts going through your mind. And this opens up the possibility of people deliberately engaging with positive emotions to improve their mental health, rather than just trying to change negative emotions,” he said.

Professor Gilbert said that researchers are increasingly focusing on positive emotions – with the recent evidence-based recognition of a neural pathway that makes people feel soothed and safe.

“A key element of happiness is the feeling you get when your country has won the World Cup, or you’ve pulled off a success on the stock market. It involves the hormone dopamine, making people feel energised and engaged with their environment.

“Another equally important system is a sense of being at peace, of being soothed. An effective parenting caring system encourages the ability to feel soothed, to believe that the world is safe. When this system is underactive, life becomes extremely threatening, with fear causing people to become self-critical, to feel ashamed or, by adopting a ‘better safe than sorry’ policy, to become violent. People who are not parented in a caring way can experience depression, social anxiety and eating disorders.”

Professor Gilbert said that research, due to be published later in the year, had shown that it was possible to stimulate self-compassion and a feeling of being soothed in the same way as it is possible to become sexually aroused through particular thoughts.

“We teach people to generate compassionate, soothing imagery which can take time for those with borderline problems. We tend to find that people who experience this feeling start to cry. It is as though this system has been frozen in people with an underactive soothing system – as though in order to stay safe, they cannot allow themselves to feel grief.’’

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