How Active Imaginations Can Shape Our Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When we’re children, our minds and creativity know no bounds. One second, we might be pirates sailing through the perilous seas of our bathtub and the next, we’re hiding in our indestructible castles built of blankets and sheets. As we get older, however, our creativity levels can dwindle. Daydreams may often be more confined to the limits of reality, and we may be told that it is not okay to be imaginative, especially in a playful manner. 

While we certainly can get by without this creativity and visualization, having it holds a special place in psychology, in our mental health, and our mental development and maintenance. This article will set out to evaluate and emphasize the importance of the imagination both as a child and in our adulthood, as well as review online therapy as an option for curious parents and families.

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Commuting to an office for therapy isn’t feasible for everyone

Active imagination and child development

Play behaviors are hardwired into different species to satisfy their needs for fun and to help them develop a variety of abilities that will improve their chances of survival. Similarly, the creativity and imaginative activities that human children engage in play a crucial role in their development.

Active imagination helps children build valuable social skills

If you know a thing or two about play therapy, you know the beneficial effects that come with allowing a child to express their active imagination through pretend situations. Children who play pretend can come up with their worlds and characters, through which they emulate some of the social skills they’ve observed in the real world and figure out how they apply to any given situation.

These benefits can become even greater when children play pretend with other children. This allows them to learn about cooperation and compromise with others in a hands-on environment, instead of just from a parent.

Imaginative play supports cognitive development

Through imagined situations, children learn how to problem solve, how to use language, and how the world around them works. Let’s say, for example, that you have a child who is pretending that they are working at a restaurant in outer space. Their experience will teach them how they need to talk to the people around them to keep things moving smoothly. Active creativity will teach them how a real-life restaurant works when they start researching more about the mechanics of a real dining experience, and it will teach them how to come up with solutions if something should go wrong in the restaurant.

All these skills are skills that we should be fostering in our children because they can be applied to real-life situations.

Pretend play often includes physical activity

Children are wonderful at being active, and it doesn’t stop when they are playing pretend. Besides the cognitive benefits that come from active creativity, pretend play also gives children the opportunity to become more comfortable with their bodies and helps them improve necessary functions, such as motor skills and hand-eye coordination.


Active imagination in adulthood

In adulthood, it’s not uncommon for someone who has an active imagination to potentially be viewed as childish.

Although it’s logical to think that the need for creativity stops once we’ve learned the skills that imagination has to offer us, creativity is just as important in adulthood as it is in childhood, especially when it comes to your mental health.

We still need these skills

Skills that we’ve learned will not just vanish once we stop using them, or use them less frequently. However, the skills that we learn can become less convenient if we don’t use them consistently. Using your active imagination and being creative will keep the skills mentioned above honed for continuous use throughout your adult years.

Play relieves stress and improves relationships

Think back to a time when you played a game or engaged in a creative activity using only your mind.

How did it feel? Did it make you feel smarter, more connected, and removed from the stress of everyday life? Creative activities and imaginative games with others allow us to recharge our brains, take a much-needed break from our daily stressors, and help us connect with those around us. This can be especially true when we use creativity in a work environment.

It keeps your mind and body energized and honed

Something is refreshing and electrifying about doing a creative task and using your active imagination. It allows us to escape, if only for a moment, from life as we know it. It allows us to explore new worlds outside of our homes, learn new things about our existing world as well as ourselves and puts us in touch with that childlike part of ourselves at all ages. Our active imagination keeps us on our toes, mentally and physically.

The term “active imagination” is just another way to say “visualization”

There is, at times, a stigma attached to the phrase “active imagination.” When we think of the phrase “active imagination,” we likely don’t conjure up visions of success and abundance in our lives. Instead, we most likely think about people who are extremely creative but whose lives are perhaps less conventional. 

One way that society has managed to work around this is by turning the phrase “active imagination” into “visualization.” When we hear the word “visualization,” we may think about the self-help industry and the power of attracting what we want simply by imagining that we already have it.

When we visualize what we want, and we know that we want what we visualize, it may tell our subconscious mind that we can obtain what we want out of life. It is essentially the same principle that you see in other aspects of psychology, such as positive thinking and positive affirmations. Visualization, or active imagination, can help us to reprogram our way of thinking and, therefore, our way of doing.

Commuting to an office for therapy isn’t feasible for everyone

The use of active imagination in psychology

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, some therapists use play therapy when attempting to evaluate and assist children who have behavioral or mental health issues. This type of therapy is usually applied to care for children only and is not very often used in adult cases. For adults, psychologists can apply creativity to psychotherapy to achieve the same effects.

According to chapter 13 in the Handbook of Therapeutic Imagery Techniques, “The theoretical purpose of using imaginary situations is based not only on how the patient views his world but also being able, in time, to ‘open up the closed system of internal reality.” This means that being able to look at a situation from an imaginative perspective can help us conceptualize the consequences of each relevant decision and weigh them, allowing for more reasoned and rational decision-making and more thorough benefits.

Tap into an active imagination in online therapy

Having an active imagination is not only part of a healthy childhood and growth into a well-adjusted adult, but it can also be a key part of keeping our minds healthy throughout adulthood. You don’t have to outgrow being imaginative; in fact, it may be better for you to keep that imagination alive throughout your life.

If you can relate to the above, a great place for you to start receiving help is BetterHelp. Researchers found that “users of BetterHelp experienced significantly reduced depression symptom severity after engaging with the platform.” You may read the full study here.

Counselor reviews

“I have been working with Bayley for about three months now. During this time my life has had a tremendous amount of change and self-realization. Bayley has supported me with doing the work to heal by offering creative suggestions, mindful thoughts, and space to feel seen and heard.”

“I highly recommend and trust Dr. Abney as a therapist/counselor/doctor. Words are not enough to describe how professional and perfect he is. His talent for turning negative thoughts and situations into positive ones in such a unique way converts weaknesses into strengths and provides the foundations so we can understand, accept, and love ourselves and see life from a better perspective. Most of us might find it hard to speak to a therapist/ counselor (at least, I did before finding Dr. Abney!) and he has a magic way to make it so simple. Thanks a million, Dr. Abney!!”


It can be exciting to learn just how advantageous it is to be able to tap into your active imagination. Harnessing that power can enable us to visualize our desired outcomes and different paths we might take to reach success. It can help us anticipate challenging conversations so that we might approach them with confidence. If you'd like to learn more about the power of active imagination and visualization from a professional, consider reaching out to a BetterHelp therapist online. You don't need to have a mental health diagnosis to benefit from online counseling, and you can get support on terms that work for your schedule.

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