Reduce stress and anxiety with mental imagery
In the last post (https://www.sjdpsych.com/post/how-to-make-time-for-you} I talked about things you could do to grab a little time just for yourself.
Instead of trying to find 'me-time' to do the bubble bath with lit candles and incense, I mentioned taking ‘me-moments.’
That is, using every chance you find – even if it’s only a minute or two - to relieve some of the stress you’re feeling and be just a little calmer.
Everybody needs something – the kids are hungry, the baby’s crying, you’ve had three texts from the office – basically everybody has something they want and they want it now.
You’re feeling like you’re at the end of your rope. Decisions have to be made immediately and you just want to scream.
I talked about tensing all your muscles as tightly as you can and holding that tension until you just can't hold it anymore. Then let it all go so you feel like a dishrag.
That exercise is sensational for relieving all of the stress you’re feeling. It’s the most effective one I know.
But you can’t always find a place where you can tense up your face into a grimace and tighten all your muscles to the max.
And when you can’t use the muscle tightening technique, there is another natural way to relax your mind and body. It's called “mental imagery.”
This is the process where you create a happy scene in your mind and go to that place mentally to calm yourself. It has to be your happy place and it can take a while to get it just where you need it.
But you can get it right. And I’m going to help you get there.
How to choose your calming vision
Sometimes it’s hard for people to come up with just the right image to use. Maybe they get part way into a scene and it suddenly brings up an unhappy memory.
It’s easy to get discouraged when that happens.
But I strongly encourage them to keep trying. Once the image feels right, then things fall into place. With time anyone can find this approach comforting and relaxing.
Let me say up front that you need to practice whatever scene you come up with. If you don’t, you won’t be able to get there when you need it. All the other thoughts and feelings will crowd in and keep you from relaxing.
Sometimes people tell me it takes too long to fill in all the details that are needed to make mental imagery successful.
When that happens I point out that spending a little more time at the beginning can make for a lifetime of stress relief without pills.
It’s important that the scene be something that’s all your own. The same things aren’t calming to everyone. For example, my scene involves walking through a field of flowers. I hear the bees buzzing. But if you’re allergic to bees, that would certainly NOT be a calming idea.
You need to use all your senses in the scene you imagine in your head. The more you can mentally fill in the pieces and practice it, the more easily it can calm and relax you.
Details for your calming vision: steps to success
Let me take you through the steps.
First, you need to think of a place or scene that makes you feel good or that you find enjoyable. For me, I “see” a field of waist-high grasses and wildfllowers surrounded by woods.
A woman I worked with a while back mentally took herself to her bedroom with the curtains down, music playing and the lights dim.
Another person imagined his grandparents’ barn with the aroma of hay and the sound of the animals mooing and calling to each other.
Again, this has to be personal. For me, although this isn’t a real memory, it’s a combination of times over the years where I’ve wandered in the woods and fields.
Back to my imagery: Walking through the field is a young woman with a long flowing dress. The wind is blowing her skirt around her legs. The sun touches her left cheek and it feels warm and comforting.
Think about what I just did. I mentioned we need to use all the senses and fill out the scene as completely as we can. The wind is blowing. The sun is warm on her cheek. So now we have the senses of vision and touch.
The scent of the flowers and woods reaches her nostrils and tickles her nose just a little. She
hears the rustling of the leaves.
Here we have smell, touch and hearing.
We don’t have taste at this point, but we could add it. For example, maybe she sees some wild phlox and plucks it, then pulls a blossom from the stem and sucks the sweet nectar.
OK – so you have all the senses, a scene that is calming and soothing. Now you have to fill in details – the more the better.
Maybe she has long brown hair. She’s wearing a peasant blouse. Her skirt is full and made from some type of flowing, billowy fabric. You hear birds chirping. She looks up to see an occasional white fluffy cloud scooting across the otherwise blue sky.
Now – practice it.
Practicing your vision: essential for success
if you’ve ever tried meditating you know how hard it can be to learn and practice it well.
You’re supposed to put everything else out of your mind and just be...
...But then the light bill flashes into your head.
...Or you wonder how your son did on his math test...
You go back to emptying your mind and suddenly fear of what the dog is doing breaks your concentration.
In many ways, using mental images is like meditation, but easier. Instead of letting your mind wander and calm itself, which can take time, this process mentally takes you away from the things you’re distressed about and helps you relax.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to practice your scene. Say I’m in the line at the grocery. There are quite a few people in front of me and I finally get up almost to the cashier. But the woman in front of me is trying to pay her $19 bill with change.
She keeps dropping coins and has to start over... and over...and over.
I had only given myself twenty minutes to shop before I had to head to another meeting and I know I can’t get out on time and still pay for the groceries.
I’m getting upset about the woman in front of me. I’m ticked off at myself that I even stopped. I can’t figure out how to get out of there without putting all the groceries back in the cart and abandoning the cart, a rotten thing to do to the store and the other customers.
I close my eyes just for a moment and breathe deeply. I'm suddenly in a field with a young woman in front of me. Her long brown hair is blowing in the wind. The sun touches her cheek. The scent of wildflowers is everywhere.
I open my eyes and look down and to the right* where I can keep the vision in front of me, all the time breathing deeply.
The woman at the front of the line is finally done. I look up toward the cashier and the
mental image disappears. In the meantime, I’m much more relaxed and it took almost no time.
Now I can go to that place in my mind anytime I want to. And it has never failed to help me feel less stressed and anxious.
Barriers to using your calming mental vision
Using this technique to naturally sooth and reduce tension can be quite effective. But there are some things that can stand in the way of its being successful.
One barrier is not taking the time to create the image and fill in the blanks.
But this approach can only work if you create and practice the image of the place you want to go and all the sensory pieces that go with it.
Probably the biggest barrier, though, is rejecting the idea that this can help and not giving it a fair shot.
With the maximum muscle tension and release technique it only takes using it one time to convince you of how effective it can be.
Using mental imagery does take more time. But it can be used anywhere and any time, no pills required.
Take the time to create and add all the elements of mental imagery I described. It will give you a powerful lifetime way to de-stress that you can use anytime and anywhere.
1. Imagine a happy, relaxing scene.
2. Fill in something for all the senses: touch, vision, hearing, smell and taste.
3. Practice the scene in your mind when you don’t need it. Practice it to the point that
you can go there at a second’s notice. You don’t even have to think about it.
4. Once you've practiced and mastered your scene, use it with your next episode of
frustration and tension.
If it doesn’t give you the relief you need, try another scene until you get it right. It works.
*We'll talk about "looking down and to the right" and how that helps with memories at another time
Image of tub and candles by @Canstockphoto inc/Geleol
Image of angry man by @Canstockphoto inc/theblackrhino
Image of thinking head by @Canstockphoto inc/yayayoyo
Field of flowers by @Canstockphoto inc/jarenwicklund
Image of balance by @Canstockphoto inc/Orla