Think about a time in your life that something good happened. It could be a birthday or a vacation, a fun time out with friends or family, or maybe just a time you felt truly relaxed and at ease. Focus your mind on that experience for a moment. Try to relive that moment using all of your senses:
- What did you hear?
- What did you touch?
- What did you smell?
- What did you see?
- What did you taste?
Our imaginations can be very powerful and the imagery that our minds conjure can be very emotionally persuasive. When we are anxious this can work to our disadvantage, causing us to imagine the worst case scenario in vivid detail and increasing our anxiety symptoms. Research suggests that imagery can activate the same areas of the brain that are activated by our actual experiences. So how can we use imagery to our advantage?
When you imagine something going horribly wrong, it can feel as though it has actually gone horribly wrong, leading to increased anxiety and tension. But the reverse is true as well. If you can immerse yourself and imagine something positive and relaxing, then your imagination can contribute to feeling less stressed and more relaxed.
How this strategy works: Imagining yourself successfully doing the activity or navigating the situation can boost your confidence and positive expectations. Visualize yourself slowly and successfully mastering situations where you anticipate feeling anxious. You can do this before you enter anxiety-provoking situation or while you are in the midst of it.
Example 1: If you are about to write an exam and you are worried about failing and all of the potential implications of failing, imagine yourself being able to answer every question and finishing the exam with confidence. Imagine yourself handing in your exam sheet to the proctor with every question completed and the elation you will feel at a job well done. Imagine yourself leaving the exam and rewarding yourself with some type of treat that appeals to you.
Example 2: If you are in a situation where you are experiencing symptoms of panic, instead of imagining the worst case scenario, imagine yourself calming down and being able to continue along in your day. What would it feel like to calm your body and your mind? Imagine yourself walking into your next class or task feeling completely calm. How would your body feel? What would a panic-free class look like for you?
Practice every day
As with any skill, using imagery strategies take time and practice to learn how to use them effectively. It is natural to not get it right away or to fall back into your usual patterns of thinking. Don’t give up. If you are interested in learning more imagery strategies, consider signing up for our Alleviating Anxiety seminar.