5 Visualizations to Help Lessen Anxiety

Mindfulness techniques make anxious thoughts pass more quickly.

Posted Sep 25, 2020

With many surveys showing that anxiety is at heightened levels ever since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the struggle to manage stress is a common one. In my practice, I am seeing people identify with feeling overwhelmed, pessimistic, and frazzled. These feelings are compounded by a sense of uncertainty about the future, and no clear sense of when the disruptions of our daily lives will no longer be so significant. 

It's important to understand that stress—and by which I mean the classic definition of the stress response, which is your reaction to a stressor (a trigger)—is multi-faceted. It involves not just your thoughts, but your emotions, your behavior, and your body. When we feel like we are under a chronic stress response, or one that is particularly severe or unrelenting, anxiety begins to follow us—to the point of ingraining a negative, fearful mindset (even beyond what is warranted.)

There are many ways to address anxiety: today we'll tackle visualizations, which are shown to help increase the body's calm, which in turn helps counter anxious thinking. Many of these originated with mindfulness exercises and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and are expanded upon in Detox Your Thoughts.

It may feel strange to try this if you never have before; if that's the case, don't fret. Choose a relaxed, quiet, and private time and get your body comfortable. After you have read over the one you want to try, close your eyes. As you visualize the scenarios below, observe your breath and attempt to take nice full inhales through the nose, and nice slow exhales through the mouth. There is no "right" way to do these; there is no particular goal you have to achieve. The key is to try, and to see if any of them resonate with you. And if you find even a little relief from these exercises, keep practicing!

1. Leaves on a stream.

Imagine that you are sitting on the edge of a stream, perhaps with a waterfall in it. Try if you can to hear what the stream sounds like, and to feel the ground under you. Maybe there is a certain fresh, woodsy smell that accompanies your experience in your mind.

Now picture a particular negative thought—perhaps an unduly catastrophic or negative one, or one that keeps intruding on your day (even if it's true). Picture it as a leaf that is floating by, from the left side of your vision to the right. It goes at its own pace, but it keeps moving. Breathe as you watch it gradually get far enough down the stream that you no longer see it anymore.

2. Birds flying away.

Now imagine that you are sitting outside under the bluest of skies, with some puffy white clouds in front of a bright, full sun. Think of how the sun feels on your skin. Now imagine one of your most anxiety-provoking thoughts; maybe it's something like "Things won't get better" or "She doesn't love me enough." Picture a cluster of thoughts if you want—thoughts that weigh you down and feel heavy. Now envision them as birds that are walking in front of you, getting ready to take flight. Watch them fly away, gradually disappearing from your vision, as you breathe slowly and mindfully.

3. Debris going down the drain.

Now envision yourself washing your hands, at a bright, shiny white sink. What are the sounds? What is the feel of the water against your skin? You are getting a refreshing break, and your anxious thoughts are crumbly specks of dark dirt that are flowing off you, down the drain. After they circle the drain, they eventually disappear. You don't have to be repulsed by the thoughts; they cannot harm you. They simply take their leave once they flow away.

4. Smoke dissipating.

Now imagine sitting somewhere very comfortable and cozy, outside in your favorite kind of weather. How does it smell? Where are you sitting? What are the sounds that you hear?

Now picture some of your most anxiety-provoking thoughts as a blurry, thick could of dark gray or black smoke. Watch its shape sitting near the ground, heavy and burdensome. Now, as you mindfully observe your breath, watch the smoke lessen in its intensity, growing more diffuse as its color lightens. Imagine the smoke representing your anxious thoughts as they become less severe, less heavy. Watch the dissipation of the smoke slowly and gradually to the point where it eventually disappears altogether.

5. A sun breaking through passing clouds.

This visualization is a little different, because instead of picturing only the passing of negative thoughts, you will also be picturing the breaking through of positive energy. Picture yourself comfortable and relaxed outdoors on a sunny day. Now imagine the sun as representing something positive and important to you, a value within your life: perhaps it's your compassion, your family, your connection to your community, or your energy. Now picture that as a bright and irrepressible force that is gradually shining through the burdens of the negative weights in your life, which are represented by the clouds. The sun is taking over, to the point where the clouds are moving out of sight altogether.

If none of these resonated with you, or they felt hokey, that's okay. The more tools that you try for your anxiety, and the more different ways you attempt to put them into practice, the more likely you are to find something that works for you in particular. So, keep trying!