Study finds mental contrasting technique can reduce anxiety about the future

New research published in Frontiers in Psychology provides evidence that a visualization technique can help people overcome fears about future events.

The technique, known as mental contrasting, was shown to reduce anxiety about the future in two different situations.

“The study is part of a twenty-year long line of research about how thinking about the future influences behavior change,” said study author Gabriele Oettingen of New York University, who developed the technique. “We have discovered that positive thoughts and images about future success predict low effort and low success, whether in the areas of achievement, health, or interpersonal relations.”

“At the same time, when you mentally contrast the thoughts and fantasies about a desired future with the main inner obstacle of reality standing in the way, people will find clarity about what they want and can achieve, and they invest the effort to fulfill their wishes and attain their goals,” she explained.

“The present article applies mental contrasting not to a desired future, but to a feared future. Fantasies about a feared future contrasted with obstacles of reality standing in the way that the feared future will come true, helped people approach their fears with courage instead of indulging in anxieties.”

The two-part study, which included a total of 405 participants, found that people felt less anxious after mentally contrasting a negative, feared future with the positive present-day reality.

The researchers’ first experiment uncovered that participants who were instructed to vividly imagine an E. coli epidemic along with the positive reality that was preventing it had lower levels of anxiety than those who only imagined the negative future. The first group of participants also had less anxiety than those who were instructed to first imagine the present reality preventing an E. coli epidemic and then vividly imagine an outbreak in the future.

In the second experiment, the participants were asked to think about an event occurring soon in their lives that evoked unfounded or unreasonable fears. Again, the participants who were instructed to think about the present reality that was standing against their feared future had lower levels of anxiety regarding the future event.

The findings, Oettingen told PsyPost, indicate that “mental contrasting of the future and the reality is a mental tool that people can use not only to fulfill their wishes but also to attenuate their anxieties.”

There are a number of questions that future research should address, Oettingen said.

“For example, can we use mental contrasting of a feared future also to regulate other emotions than anxiety? Would some people benefit more than others from mental contrasting their feared futures? Would the reduction of anxiety lead to actively addressing the feared future?”

“The tool of mental contrasting a desired future with the obstacle of reality has been thoroughly investigated, in its behavioral, emotional, and cognitive consequences,” Oettingen added. “Mental contrasting is a conscious imagery technique that leads to behavior change via non-conscious cognitive, motivational, and feedback processes. Intervention studies show that mental contrasting helps people find clarity and fulfil their wishes during everyday life and longer-term development.”

“These studies use mental contrasting per se or in combination with implementation intentions.” Implementation intentions or if-then plans have been discovered by Peter M. Gollwitzer.”

“More information on how to apply mental contrasting per se and mental contrasting with implementation intentions can be found at (see also the WOOP app). The acronym WOOP stands for: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.”

The study, “Mental Contrasting of a Negative Future with a Positive Reality Regulates State Anxiety“, was co-authored by Gunnar Brodersen.