Can Mental Imagery Help You Feel Better?

Check out this just-published report from a researcher in Germany.

Posted Sep 19, 2019

(c) racorn/fotosearch
What if your therapist were to say to you, "Close your eyes. . ."
Source: (c) racorn/fotosearch

For many years, I've sensed that when I ask my psychotherapy clients to close their eyes, the therapy turns out to be all the more effective. According to a just-published article from a British psychologist who works in Germany, I have been right.

Closing their eyes enables clients to view what therapists refer to as mental imagery.

Simon Blackwell writes in the September 2019 issue of the Journal of Psychotherapy Integration: "Accumulating evidence from neuroimaging studies indicates that mental imagery is encoded similarly to actual perception (page 235)." 

Better yet, "Experimental studies with healthy volunteers have shown that processing emotionally valanced information via mental imagery has a greater impact on subjective emotion than verbal processing" (page 236). 

What does that mean? Doing therapy with your eyes closed may be more potent than therapy with your eyes are open as you talk with your therapist!

Want to try it? Experiment with this self-help therapy technique.

The guided visualization exercise at this link aims to alleviate a negative emotional state like irritation, frustration, or anxiety.  The exercise also can give you surprising insight into the roots of what may have caused you to get stuck in feeling this way.

Blackwell's article suggests that by closing your eyes as you do a therapy intervention, the impacts may be stronger. What was your experience?

Here's another mental imagery therapy example reported by Blackwell:

". . . Partway through therapy, a letter from his bank led a man with recurrent depression to suddenly feel overwhelmed by his financial situation, feeling hopeless and struggling to get out of bed. Focusing on this "felt sense" (see Butler et al., 2010), he generated an image of himself trapped in a jail cell, with the walls and ceiling falling down on him. He rescripted this image, imagining pushing open the door and walking out into a sunny and open meadow. The relief and reduction in acute anxiety from this simple rescript allowed him to then engage in constructive problem solving around his current situation and make plans for steps forward" (page 241).

What about using mental imagery to treat depression?

My TEDx talk at this link shows how you can use visualization to find a pathway out of feeling depressed.  Visualizing this "Three P's" exercise, either as self-help or with the aid of a therapist, can provide an alternative to standard talk therapies and even to antidepressant medication for relieving mild to moderate levels of situational depression. Situational depression is an emotionally negative and low energy state triggered by something troubling in your life.

The importance of Blackwell's reassuring report on mental imagery

Blackwell reports, and I agree, that "There are a number of established and emerging imagery-based techniques (page 240)." At the same time, he also writes that too many mental health practitioners and patients may have concerns that mental imagery techniques are somehow pseudoscientific. 

Blackwell concludes reassuringly that "Simply being aware of the scientific basis for considering mental imagery in treatment can in itself be extremely helpful." He continues, "feeling secure in the scientific underpinning of the use of mental imagery, and being able to communicate this to patients, can help overcome these potential barriers" (page 239). Therapists' and clients' confidence in the techniques they use matters.

Can mental imagery replace all prior talk therapy and medication treatments for emotional difficulties?

For sure, no. 

Can they intensify the effectiveness of some talk therapy interventions? For sure, yes. 

And can an understanding of the power of mental imagery enable the creation of new therapy techniques such as those in the videos above? For sure, the answer to this question is also a resounding, "Yes!"

Thank you, Dr. Simon, for writing your important journal article.

References

Butler, G., Fennell, M.J.V. & Hackman, A (2010).  Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: Matering clinical challenges.  New York, NY: Guildford Press.