You have probably heard a great deal about the effectiveness of yoga and meditation in helping to alleviate anxiety symptoms. These activities are known to relax the mind and body, and allow you to reshape your way of thinking. Similarly, using visualization techniques for anxiety relief can be extremely effective.
Types of Visualization Techniques for Anxiety
There is more than one type of visualization technique that can be useful for anxiety. Some of the most-used techniques include the following:
- Imagining positive outcomes. The first type of visualization technique involves envisioning a scenario playing out in the way that you would like it to happen – technically a more involved version of positive thinking.
- Creating a safe space. This technique allows you to create a relaxing space for yourself in your mind where you will be able to retreat in times of high stress and anxiety.
- Guided imagery and relaxation techniques. These are basically guided, structured meditations designed to calm the body and mind.
It is believed that the more you imagine successful outcomes, the more likely it is that what you’re picturing will unfold in real life. Perhaps the most-cited evidence for this phenomenon is a study by Australian psychologist Alan Richardson. In this study, a group of basketball players who had merely visualized making free throws performed almost as well as the group that had actually practiced making free throws for 20 minutes each day.
This type of visualization technique is particularly helpful if you’re anxious over a certain scenario. Whether it’s something that happens in your day-to-day life that you find challenging (taking public transportation, interacting with your boss) or whether you’re stressed over a very specific situation (asking for a raise, ending a relationship), this technique can be invaluable.
First, you’ll want to relax as best you can. Sit or lie down in a quiet place, take a deep breath, and close your eyes. Imagine your situation. Let’s use the “taking public transportation” scenario as an example. Imagine the process from start to finish, using all your senses. Imagine purchasing your ticket and waiting for the train. Imagine navigating successfully through the crowd and taking your seat. Experience the smells, sights, and sounds of the moving car. Check in with your body – are you hot or cold? Do you have elbow room or are there people crowded around you?
Either way, imagine yourself calm and relaxed, lost in a book or listening to your favorite album. You are almost to your destination and the morning has gone off without a hitch. Imagine the train coming to a stop – the noisy brakes and the bustle of people going in and out as the doors open. You step onto the platform and make your way toward the station exit. You just successfully completed your trip with no problems! Now continue your deep breathing and allow the image of the train to fade away as you come back to the present.
When you use this visualization technique, your brain doesn’t know the difference between acting out the scenario in your mind or in real life – just imagining it actually helps you become better able to achieve it. Additionally, visualizing positive outcomes causes your brain to release endorphins, furthering the anxiety-relieving benefit.
Imagining Your Safe Space
To use this visualization technique for anxiety, first imagine what you’d like your safe space to be. This can be anywhere you would feel happy and completely at peace, whether the place exists in real life or not. Whether this is at home in your bed or on top of a mountain doesn’t make a difference, so long as you find this space aesthetically pleasing and relaxing. (Note: Once you choose a safe space, try not to change it. This technique takes practice, so sticking with a single space will make things easier.)
Once you’ve decided on where your imagined safe space will be, you are ready to begin the visualization. As with any meditation or relaxation technique, you should choose somewhere quiet and comfortable with few, if any, distractions. Try to relax your body and take deep breaths. Clear your mind of your worries and preoccupations as much as possible, even if this means simply imagining what it would be like to be anxiety-free. Now you’ll want to imagine yourself transported to your safe space. Use all five senses to experience everything that place has to offer. Let’s say your safe space is a tropical beach. Imagine the sight of the turquoise water and palm trees, the smell of hibiscus and ocean air, the sound of the waves crashing and birds chirping, the taste of salt water and coconuts, and the feeling of the gentle breeze and the warm sand on your toes.
Immerse yourself in these sensations and nothing else. When thoughts of the “real word” (particularly anxious ones) come up, imagine that these thoughts are actually clouds that are passing by overhead – they were there for a moment, but they’re out of sight now. For particularly stubborn worries, imagine that you are able to transform them into an object – perhaps you can turn your worries into stones to cast off into the ocean. Try to stay in your safe space for 15 minutes to half an hour for best results.
It is important to understand that this technique will likely not come naturally to you. You may feel a bit silly, and the first few times you may not be able to cast away your anxious thoughts – that’s OK. But in order for this visualization technique to work, you need to be dedicated to practicing it regularly. Eventually, going to your safe space will become automatic in times of high stress, and you will have an effective calming tool under your belt for managing anxiety.
Guided Imagery and Relaxation for Anxiety
These visualization techniques often involve learning to create a safe space within your mind, just as the above-mentioned technique. However with a guided visualization, you will follow the prompting of an experienced therapist or practitioner, whether in person or on a recording.
Guided imagery can have positive physiological and psychological effects on anxiety sufferers, bringing about changes in breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, as well as improving coping skills. Over the past 30 years, studies have shown that guided imagery helps people prepare for medical procedures and helps to speed recovery times. This is attributed to the fact that anxiety weakens the immune system and harms your body’s natural healing abilities, so patients who were less anxious had better results, shorter hospital stays and faster healing. And not only does guided imagery bolster your immune system, but it has the added benefit of increasing self-confidence and positive thinking. Look for guided imagery and relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation around the web, on CD, or even on iTunes. You can also bring it up with your therapist – she may have recommendations or experience with this technique herself.
When Should You Use Visualization Techniques for Anxiety?
The wonderful aspect of using visualization techniques for anxiety is they can be done anywhere, at any time when you need to center yourself. There are no side effects, dangers of addiction or large expenses. As you become more adept at visualization, it will begin to come more easily and perhaps even become an integrated part of your life. In times of high stress, it should be second nature to you. By practicing a visualization technique, you are treating yourself to a “vacation” from your anxiety.