Reduce Stress and Anxiety With Your Imagination
The imagination can be used as a powerful tool in taming the stress response.
Posted Jun 23, 2020
There is a place that many of us enjoyed visiting in our early years. Filled with exciting stories, captivating imagery, and a sense of carefree curiosity, this place had a way of drawing us in with such ease. Otherwise known as our imagination, this place allowed us the chance to showcase our creativity, strengthen our problem solving abilities, build our social and communication skills, and enhance our emotional expression. And for some, when life felt shaky, this place provided a comforting escape and blocked out the realities of a scary, broken world.
Channeling the Imagination
Research highlights the value of the imagination in childhood development, but the benefits of the imagination don’t have to stop as we age. Fortunately, we have the ability to harness the power of our imagination, and use it for more than just slaying dragons, fighting pirates, or saving the world. As adults, we can still utilize this aspect of our minds to help reduce anxiety and stress, solve problems, and encourage certain characteristics or qualities within ourselves to meet life’s challenges as they come.
One way to utilize our imagination is through guided imagery, or the creation of images and sensations within our minds to elicit relaxed responses. The mind-body connection is incredible, and it is increasingly shaping and directing interventions within our health and mental health care systems. Multiple studies, for example, demonstrate the effectiveness of guided imagery techniques in improving health and mental health related conditions (Giacobbi et al. 2017).
While there are many different variations of guided imagery techniques, the following are a few approaches to help specifically address forms of anxiety and stress. This certainly isn't an exhaustive list, but can get you started.
Safe Place Visualization
The ‘Safe Place’ visualization technique is commonly used in meditation and other mindfulness practices. When you’re feeling anxious or stressed, bringing yourself to a safe place can provide you with immediate access to positive emotions. Simply close your eyes and picture yourself in an environment that allows you to feel safe. This place can be real or imagined, as long as it evokes a sense of calmness and peace.
While many ‘safe places’ help reduce anxiety and stress, one study highlighted the role of nature-based guided imagery in decreasing the stress response (Nguyen & Brymer, 2018). Participants in this study engaged in nature-based guided imagery sessions and a traditional non-nature based sessions, and their anxiety levels were continually measured after each session. Results indicated that participants’ exposure to natural scenes and environments actually promoted higher rates of stress-reduction and relaxation, more so than participants’ visualization of 'urban based' scenes.
So, next time you’re feeling stressed, close your eyes, take a breath, and try imagining yourself in a calm, natural setting—such as the beach, mountains, or lake. Explore what this place is like using all of your senses, and enjoy this mini-vacation, fully accessible within your mind.
In Getting Past Your Past Dr. Francine Shapiro identifies several self-help techniques to help people cope with trauma or disturbing memories. One approach is called the ‘Lightstream’ technique, which utilizes elements of the imagination to help with certain types of physical and emotional pain.
To perform this technique, find a quite space and begin identifying any upsetting bodily sensations. Try concentrating on any shapes or other characteristics (color, temperature, texture, size) that embodies the sensation. Next, think about a color that you associate with healing. Start to imagine a light of this color forming at the top of your head, and begin visualizing the light beaming down through your body towards your feet.
As the light targets the shape of the disturbing bodily sensation, allow it to sink in and reverberate through it, while paying attention to any changes in its shape. Can you sense any changes in the intensity or the way it feels? What about the shape, size, or color? Continue to allow the healing light to work its way through any other sensations or unpleasant feelings throughout the body.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could cultivate certain qualities or characteristics that we seem to lack? Perhaps certain qualities or skills that would help us overcome worry, anxiety, or stress? Well, turns out, we can!
Dr. Martin Rossman is an integrative medicine physician, author, and researcher who has done extensive work in the area of mind-body medicine and guided imagery. He created The Worry Solution, which helps people manage anxiety and stress through guided imagery and creative visualization techniques. Along with his use of safe place imagery exercises discussed above, he also uses a tool called evocative imagery, which helps you develop certain qualities you might need to overcome upcoming challenges or struggles.
Using this approach, begin by identifying a few qualities or personal characteristics you would like more of. Maybe you're seeking more bravery, courage, kindness, patience, or confidence. Next, imagine these qualities forming within your body and welling up inside you. Picture the kind of person you would be if you had an endless supply of these qualities, and envision how you might approach a particular challenge or hardship while modeling these characteristics. Continue to feel these qualities in your body, give them colors and tones, and allow them to reverberate through your core. Continue to imagine how they might play out in your day to day decisions, relationships, and interactions with the world. As you envision these qualities play out in your mind, you may find yourself acting in more accordance with these desired qualities in the real world.
We all experience those nagging, automatic thoughts from time to time. If poorly managed, these thoughts can easily exacerbate anxiety and stress. While the imagination often provokes such thoughts, it can also be used to tame and defuse them.
For example, in moments of mental chaos, imagine automatic, negative thoughts taking the form of shifting objects or ideas. Try visualizing them as autumn leaves detaching themselves from a tree. Watch them fall away and drift into a nearby stream, and then quickly washing away in a fast moving current. Or, picture yourself at a railroad and imagine a train starting to move by. Assign each thought to a boxcar on the train, and watch them all slowly pass by one after the other. Soon, each thought is out of sight and you’re freer to go about your way.
Sure, the imagination often gets a bad rep in the way it can trick us into thinking things that are not true, leading to heightened states of anxiety and stress. But, when tamed, it can also serve as a channel for mental clarity and freedom.
©2020 Elizabeth Dixon, LISW-CP. All rights reserved.
Giacobbi, P., Stewart, J. Chaffee, K., Jaeschke, A., Stabler, M., Kelley, G. (2017). A Scoping Review of Health Outcomes Examined in Randomized Controlled Trials Using Guided Imagery. Progress in Preventive Medicine, 2, Issue 7 - p e0010 doi: 10.1097/pp9.0000000000000010
Nguyen, J., & Brymer, E. (2018). Nature-Based Guided Imagery as an Intervention for State Anxiety. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1858. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01858
Shapiro F. (2012). Getting past your past: take control of your life with self-help techniques from EMDR therapy. New York: Rodale Books.