Our imaginations are tapped throughout our day-to-day for a variety of reasons… whether visualizing much more satisfying versions of ourselves saying what we WANTED to say to that person…

OR dreaming of a healthy and prepared-by-someone-else gourmet dinner waiting on the table when we arrive home…
OR thinking about how the team will respond to pitching the new project tomorrow Our imaginations can both perpetuate OR reduce stress.

For example, in the last example we might imagine the team responding with validation for our hard work and complimentary nods for our innovation

OR we can imagine them shredding every slide and word and pouncing on any potential unexplained detail.

Our ability to imagine allows us to consider and plan for the future. As children with less inhibited imaginations, we easily played out stories, characters, escapades and adventures in our truest hero or heroine state.

I remember sitting in the cab of the combine parked in the big white Morton building and with levers and buttons abounding. My younger sister faithfully by my side in the shotgun seat directing our perfectly envisioned animal rescues and space travel wielding the imagined power of this John Deere at our youthful no-holds-barred whim and fancy.

For some reason imagination is not as readily associated with adulting – when in fact, our imaginations are just as powerful and provide impetus for creativity and innovation in our everyday grown-up lives and responsibilities.

A Forbes article speaks to the decrease of creativity as we get older and cites Paul King, neuroscientist, who explains that our thought habits over time that “work” for us result in: increased effectiveness to navigate difficulty; adaptation to social norms and accepted ways of thinking; and ultimately staying with what works (in our thinking) rather than the unknown creative. As we consider how to recover our imagination potential to decrease stress, check in with yourself to ensure that you aren’t blocking your own imagination recovery with traps like: —- Moving, living, working and thinking too fast (like King’s first reason re: “effectiveness”). Our clamor for efficiency and doing more with less is part of the problem. Meditation and mindfulness are steadily growing trends for good reason!

—–Having no reserve not one drop of mental energy left to put towards imaginative or creative thought.

As we consider UN-Burnout and strategies towards increased resilience, Imagination offers an incredible and easily accessible resource, once we give ourselves permission to use it.

For example, a first step towards resilience-building may include reframing how we see our work or situation. We can use imagination to reflect over a day or week and to proactively identify one small interaction we appreciated or enjoyed, even if it was sharing a pleasant lunch conversation with a colleague.

We can also capitalize our imaginations to bring to mind other aspects of life for which we are grateful, even if aspects of job stress are threatening our overall well-being.

Another way to use our imagination for growth and health is to envision a new way, habit, option, approach – we can see ourselves differently in the future implementing one small strategy at a time as we endeavor to beat burnout, build healthier relationships and recover balance.

Gaining clarity of vision also requires imagination. Deliberate and focused imagination requires slowing down…aka mindfulness. Numerous articles encourage leaders to promote imagination and the closely related innovation and creativity.

As a coach committed to DEEPER, my clients also use IMAGINATION to see themselves offloading illegitimate guilt and shame. I often use for the metaphor of throwing “pieces” or “boulders” or rocks of any sizes that represent how much a client is ready to “chuck” (I also keep actual rocks in my office for them to take with them for a real-live experiential “chucking”!)

In my work with high performers, much of our coaching centers around enhancing emotional intelligence (EQ). One component of emotional intelligence is empathy. According to Hodges and Myers in the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, “Empathy is often defined as understanding another person’s experience by imagining [emphasis added] oneself in that other person’s situation: One understands the other person’s experience as if it were being experienced by the self, but without the self actually experiencing it…” Some professions demand even higher levels of empathy and skillsets around balancing empathy appropriately- loss of empathy is a burnout indicator but too much empathy creates other problematic issues. Physicians, nurses and other helping professionals struggling with burnout or compassion fatigue talk about losing the desire to help others. In any industry, employees, leaders, teams and organizations with healthy emotional intelligence and appropriate empathy will see the impact on personal and organizational well-being and specifically on indicators such as psychological safety, morale and employee engagement. We can translate the ROI in many, many ways.

Once my coaching clients recognize how powerful imagination can be when we work together to develop personalized guided meditations, visioning, and mental rehearsal, they gain innovation traction and can connect the impact to their leadership development and resilience-building. There is literally no end to the entirely new vistas for their reflection, vision, strategizing, and decision-making.


For your practical application, try your own personalized guided image, a specific relaxation technique that uses descriptive language to help the listener visualize detailed images that promote a relaxation response (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, 2016). As cited in Kiley et al. (2018), Guided Imagery has been found effective for decreasing intensity, frequency and duration of chronic tension headaches ; decreasing anxiety and depression of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy ; and increasing abstinence for smoking cessation.

Kiley et al. (2018) found Guided Imagery effective in reducing compassion fatigue of mental health workers and published the Guided Imagery tracks used in their study. A sample guided imagery track used by the study is called “The Forest” with a duration of 5 minutes, 41 seconds.

As you consider further how to recover more imagination for stress busting, a TIP from some hot-off-the-press research published this year suggests that we Imagine in the FIRST person versus the third person. In a study of college students asked to read about the human circulatory system and form a mental image, those who did so from the perspective of their own body versus the perspective of a fictitious (third) person “outperformed the control group on solving transfer problems, retaining important material and retaining unimportant material” (Leopold, Mayer & Dutke, 2019).

Let me know how your FIRST PERSON GUIDED IMAGERY turns out!

Be sure to check out the other posts in this UNBURNOUT series including Sleep and Serve More, Be You (Authentically), and Acknowledge.

Stay tuned for two more strategies in upcoming posts!


Leopold, C., Mayer, R., & Dutke, S. (2019). The power of imagination and perspective in learning from science text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(5), Jul 2019, 793-808. American Psychological Association.

Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E., & Leiter, M.P. (1996). Maslach Burnout Inventory (3rd ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Alma, H. and Smaling, A. (2006). The meaning of empathy and imagination in health care and health studies. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 1:4, 195-211. DOI: 10.1080/17482620600789438 Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17482620600789438

Kiley, K., Sehgal, A., Neth, S., Dolata, J., Pike, E., Spilsbury, J. & Albert, J. (2018). The effectiveness of guided imagery in treating compassion fatigue and anxiety of mental health workers. Social Work Research, 42(1), 33-43. Oxford University Press.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2016). Relaxation techniques for health. Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/stress/relaxation.htm

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