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Step 3: Real or imagined?

Understanding Stress and How to Manage It / Unit 2: Stress and mindset

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Step 3: Real or imagined?

Your brain does not know the difference between real and imagined. Intrigued? Continue reading to find out more.


In 2005, Harvard Medical School Neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone, ran a research project to track the function of neurons in the motor cortex of piano players. Using transcranial-magnetic-stimulation (TMS), he tracked neural stimulation of the volunteers as they practiced for two hours over the course of the week.

Pascual-Leone then took the experiment one stage further by asking the volunteers to think about playing the piano, in fact, imagining that they were practising in exactly the same way they had been all week, but without a piano and without moving their fingers. Again, using TMS, the volunteers brain activity was tracked.

Results showed that although they were not actually playing the piano, their brain activity was the same. This shows us that not only does your brain adapt and improve when you physically practice, but that simply thinking about something has the same impact on your brain (and therefore creates the same bodily reactions) as actually doing it.

Let’s take this extraordinary finding and put it into practice.

Imagine you are called to give an important presentation. Perhaps you are a little nervous. In the days running up to it, you go over and over it in your mind, thinking about what might go wrong. The night before, you can’t sleep. Your ‘primitive’ brain takes control and you are catastrophising, imaging it going wrong, your display failing, stumbling over the words, losing your notes. It couldn’t go any worse.

The next day, you do the presentation and it goes well, because presentations usually do. You ask yourself, ‘What was I worried about?’.

The key question is; How many times did you practice your presentation going wrong and how many going well?. As you imagine the worst, you are strengthening neural pathways associated with the outcome that you didn’t want. As you imagine the presentation descending into chaos, your body and brain are experiencing it, alongside all the physical reactions that go with it. Your heart would race, your stomach flutter. You might become hot and bothered. All over something that didn’t happen!


Identify something that is causing you to feel anxious. You could choose one of these examples:

  • An upcoming meeting
  • A piece of data or work deadline
  • Dealing with a conflict or a difficult work colleague

Use this technique to reduce stress and take control of this situation:

  1. Concentrate on this event. Focus on it going well; not simply ‘not as bad as I thought’, but the best possible outcome.
  2. Imagine yourself feeling calm, competent and in control.
  3. Imagine the words you will hear and the faces of the people around you.
  4. Think about how you will feel afterwards when you have easily completed the task or dealt with the challenging situation.
  5. Enjoy the feeling of well-being as serotonin releases into your system. Think about exactly what will happen when it goes well and practice visualising this as often as you can.Every time you practice this exercise you are training your brain to expect a good outcome. You are reducing anxious thoughts and therefore ensuring that you remain in your logical brain. When you are in your logical brain, you are more able to use the skills and talents you have and are therefore more able to find a positive outcome!
Step 3 question
Simply thinking about something has the same impact on your brain as actually doing it.
Checkpoint quiz: 
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