Visual or Verbal Imagery – Which is More Prevalent in People with Anxiety Issues?

According to a new study, verbal cues are used more often than visual images by people with generalized anxiety (GAD). Researchers at King’s College London, University of Western Australia, the University of California, Davis, and Penn State University, looked at individuals with and without GAD to determine the extent of imagery during worry. “In summary, the present study was designed to assess whether images during worry occur less often, or are briefer, than images generated when thinking about a personally relevant future positive event, and whether any such differences are more marked in clients with GAD than in a non-GAD control group,” said the researchers.

The team enlisted 20 individuals currently being treated for GAD, and 20 with no history of anxiety. The participants were assessed using the Penn State Worry Questionnaire, the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory and the Beck Depression Inventory prior to the study. For the study, the subjects were instructed to think of a topic that caused them worry for two minutes while a facilitator questioned them about the topic. Next, the participants were each asked to think about a positive topic and were asked to identify things that were good about the topic. Following that task, each participant was given either the positive or worrisome topic and asked to think about it for three minutes. Every ten seconds, they would be prompted to record whether they were imagining a verbal or visual image and instructed to record the duration of the image.

The study revealed that the GAD group had fewer visual images while worrying than the control group. Additionally, the GAD had shorter periods of visual imagery. “This finding suggests that those with GAD may have adopted a general mentation style favoring verbal thinking over imagery, and although this is most marked during worry, it can extend to non-worry topics as well,” said the researchers. “Given that imagery has been shown to be particularly brief in GAD, clients with this clinical problem may benefit from engaging in more prolonged imagery of worry content (i.e., what they fear will happen), as is encouraged by some forms of cognitive behavior therapy for GAD.”

Hirsch, C. R., Hayes, S., Mathews, A., Perman, G., & Borkovec, T. (2011, August 15). The Extent and Nature of Imagery During Worry and Positive Thinking in Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024947

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Fran

    August 19th, 2011 at 4:11 AM

    So why are anxious people not more willing or able to use facial cues to see what is going on with others around them? Sometimes body language tells a lot more than words ever do. Is there any way to teach them how to use these cues more effectively?

  • lance

    August 19th, 2011 at 11:54 AM

    interesting study-this has actually helped us realize what happens in our mind when we worry and can therefore lead to antidote for the same.just hope the findings go a long way.

  • Olivia

    August 19th, 2011 at 10:31 PM

    I find this pretty interesting because I always seem to think in pictures and images, not in words. I guess that means that I really am not that much of a worrier or do not let that control my life.

  • Inter-Magical

    August 20th, 2011 at 9:55 AM

    Well,if the worrying lot use more of words than images it makes perfect sense.when you concentrate only on the words and not the images,you are practically leaving out key pieces of information!and this missing info is what is making you worry!

  • Candy B.

    August 20th, 2011 at 4:52 PM

    When I am anxious or worried I know I can’t create visual imagery well or for any extended length of time. Normally I’m very imaginative and have no problem with visualization at all. When I’m anxious it’s as if the shutters come down on that part of my brain. That was interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  • YvonneNichols

    August 20th, 2011 at 6:27 PM

    “Every ten seconds, they would be prompted to record whether they were imagining a verbal or visual image and instructed to record the duration of the image.” Can somebody please explain in layman’s terms what the difference is between a verbal image and a visual image? I’m not getting that. Thank you.

  • fallon

    August 20th, 2011 at 6:45 PM

    hopefully a big step in the right direction for helping those who experience serious anxiety issues

  • Ellie Taylor

    August 20th, 2011 at 7:38 PM

    When I visualize I tend to actually see words as opposed to a movie-scene like image. Perhaps that’s why I find it hard to meditate. I can’t easily listen to a relaxation CD or read that I’m lying on a white sandy beach with turquoise waves lapping on the shore and immediately conjure up the picture created from that verbal imagery. All I need is to see the word “relax” in big letters in my head.

  • Anton L.

    August 21st, 2011 at 5:41 PM

    I’m like a cat on a hot tin roof when I attempt to do visualization in any shape or form. My mind’s a total blank and that makes me very agitated. I just can’t do it! How the heck do you guys find that a breeze? I see nothing; no words or pictures, just black.

  • Up, Down and All Around... with Jen :-)

    August 23rd, 2011 at 8:09 AM

    YvonneNichols – Verbal images are words, visual images are pictures. Some people, like me, actually think in words. I’m like Ellie on this post, I see my images in words. When I am thankful, I see the words “Thank You,” etc. Hope this helps.

  • ryan f

    September 19th, 2011 at 5:21 PM

    @Candy B.

    Agreed, in times when tension is high and I’m feeling anxious I have a terrible time creating visual imagery. But I then again, I am also at a loss for words, so I don’t know if this really counts for anything.

    From what I know, there is a fairly big difference between people with anxiety problems and those who get anxious in high pressure situations. I mean lets face it, we all get anxious every once and a while.

    In order for someone without anxiety to legitimately understand what it is like we have to use studies like these, because they give us an inside view on how they actually feel, work and think. Not how we THINK they do.

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