Anxiety: a fire of the imagination

Anxiety is a fire of the mind; and we can use firefighting tactics to control it. Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Anxiety is partly caused by the imagination catching fire.  We can be sitting quietly, when suddenly a thought catches onto another, and that in turn spawns five more thoughts.  Before we know it, we have entered a wild speculation which worries us severely.  We become like a forest fire, with the fire moving between trees and expanding faster than we can control it.

Controlling anxiety is, then, in part about controlling our imagination.  We can take lessons from how fireman control forest fires – the techniques are the same, although it takes a bit of translation to generate the psychological methods from the physical ones.  Here we go…


The best fire control is prevention.  We can stop our mind catching fire if we reduce flammable objects, watch all controlled fires, and drown fires after use.  In other words, keep away from our triggers, constantly watch ourselves when in the presence of triggers, and do something calming after exposure to triggers.


Another way to prevent fires is to create controlled burns.  The idea of a controlled burn is that, by burning off likely fuel for a wildfire, any eventual wildfire won’t have enough fuel to take hold.  Psychologically, this means letting our pent-up energy out in controlled ways, such as well-organised meetings to express frustration.  This should make it less likely that we will have a melt-down later.


Good forest managers check in advance for periods of bad weather.  Likewise, those prone to anxiety can monitor medium term conditions to check for likely environmental factors which may cause a meltdown.


Once a fire happens, firefighters use a variety of tactics.  Important tactics include barriers, hot-spotting (dousing the core), aerial attack (i.e. from a different angle), and mop-up (ensuring after-glow is minimised).  Mentally, we can impose natural barriers on our anxious thinking (e.g. with distracting activities in company);  dousing the core (e.g. with therapy/meditation that attends to the root cause of anxiety); trying a different angle (e.g. escaping to a different environment); and after-care (e.g. discussing our anxiety with a trusted friend/carer after a meltdown).


Our imagination is a good tool.  It helps us come up with new ideas, and stops us being too narrow-minded.  Speculation, well-controlled, is good.

However, having a lively imagination can lead to anxiety attacks, if we don’t learn to control what we have.  In order to develop ourselves, we can:

  1. Watch for, and avoid, triggers
  2. Let out our negative energy in controlled ways instead of leaving it latent
  3. Keep an eye out for likely environmental stresses coming up
  4. When things are worst, use distraction, meditation, therapy and conversation

In short, instead of neglecting our self-care, we can, through prevention and wisdom, learn to be good ’emotional firefighters’.