When my daughter was about four-years-old she often played “restaurant.” She’d hand around homemade menus and then prepare our orders with wooden food and Tupperware containers in her model pink kitchen in the corner of the living room. I always ordered a salad with spaghetti or whatever the special was for the night. And, while she worked to prepare the meals, she also talked to her pretend kitchen staff about how to make the recipes.
She didn’t know anything about ingredients, so each time she had to imagine what went into spaghetti sauce, or how to bake a cookie, and she worked it out in elaborate and insightful ways. Listening to her play and work through the faux challenges and recipes reminded me of the power of our imaginations. After all, she learned how to make guacamole first by imagining what would go in it.
Our imagination can work this way for us too. It can help us work through real-life fears and challenges and accomplish real-world goals.
We can visualize the interview going well. Imagine our recovery from surgery to be fast and without complication. Or create images in our mind’s eye around how we want the dinner party to go or the wedding to look or the meeting to conclude. And when we do this within our imaginations, we also change reality.
Guided Imagery Eases Stress
By creating pictures or impressions (not everyone sees pictures but it is equally powerful to draw from the other senses and emotion to create an imagined sense of sights, feelings, mood, colors, sounds) through a a practice called visualization or guided imagery, you can alter your reality for the better.
The process is so powerful that more than 3,000 hospitals nationwide use some form of imagery or visualization to treat patients. It’s effective in helping people cope with cancer symptoms and the side effects of chemotherapy; it’s useful in managing chronic pain; and visualization even helps people recover from surgery faster.
According to one study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, drop significantly in people who participate in a guided imagery session. Other research has shown that when stressful, anxiety-producing experiences are replaced with healthier, happier, positive mental images people relax significantly and that helps folks feel better, especially since stress can often cause pain to flair.
Those patients who were taught to visualize their pain in a different, more positive way were better able to manage their discomfort, according to an article in the journal Pain Management Nursing.
I use imagery to manage arthritis pain and for all kinds of things, but mainly to manage my stress. When facing a big challenge or difficult work project, I’ll go to bed and spend a few minutes imagining details of the situation. I’ll visualize how to write an article or imagine saying just the right things in a conversation with my daughter or the editorial meeting. I’ll see it all playing out perfectly in my imagination.
When we can imagine the process or experience, we reduce our stress – which makes everything easier – and prepare our bodies and brains to create just what we want.
How to Visualize
Many therapists are trained in guided visualization and plenty of CDs and MP3’s are available to lead you through a session on your own.
Here’s how you can get started.
Relax. Stay alert, but get as comfortable as you can. I sometimes do this while lying in bed or sitting upright with feet flat on the floor. Take five deep, slow breaths, or become mindful of your heartbeat. Denis Waitley, an expert in visualization and human behavior, also suggests listening to Baroque music from Bach and Vivaldi as a way to quiet the mind and open it to imagery. Settle your thoughts and begin to imagine.
Imagine your ideal circumstance and the emotions that come with it. Once relaxed and quieted, imagine a comfortable body, free from pain, or a smooth day at work, or an intimate conversation with a loved one. Imagine what you want to create. You can also envision a beautiful location, or your perfect day. Don’t worry if the images aren’t perfect, go for the sensation. Some people “visualize” through auditory cues or physical sensations. That’s fine too.
Imagery doesn’t have to be a picture per se but it does have to invoke your emotions. The power of visualization lies in the feelings you create.
Deal with the details. Infuse your image or sensation with specific details. See your body moving easily, free from pain. Imagine yourself free of stress and filled with vitality. Imagine the work project coming together easily leaving only feelings of satisfaction and calm.
Fill your imagery with the smells, textures, noises, emotions, and other details specific to the scenario to make it feel plausible.
A visualization exercise can take an hour or a few minutes. It can be done in the shower, or during a meditation, once or several times a day. Use it as needed, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun. Fire up your imagination. Play with your positive story line. Once you begin the practice, you can expand your visualizations to include any possibility.