Visualization and imagery (sometimes referred to as guided imagery) techniques offer yet another avenue for stress reduction. These techniques involve the systematic practice of creating a detailed mental image of an attractive and peaceful setting or environment. Guided imagery can be practiced in isolation, but it is frequently paired with physical relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation and massage. When guided imagery is paired with physical relaxation techniques, the aim is to associate the sensations of relaxation with the peaceful visual image, so that future practice sessions involving imagery alone will quickly bring back to mind the physical sensations of relaxation.
Guided imagery techniques work to help people relax for several reasons. As is the case with many techniques, they involve an element of distraction which serves to redirect people's attention away from what is stressing them and towards an alternative focus. The techniques are in essence a non-verbal instruction or direct suggestion to the body and unconscious mind to act "as though" the peaceful, safe and beautiful (and thus relaxing) environment were real. Finally, guided imagery can work through the associative process described above, where scenes become a learned cue or trigger that helps recall memories and sensations resulting from past relaxation practice.
Imagery techniques can be thought of as a form of guided meditation. As is the case with other forms of meditation, one of the goals and desirable outcomes is to help people learn how to detach themselves from their moment to moment fixation on the contents of their minds, and instead cultivate a relaxed detachment from which it is easy to watch (but not become embedded in) the various sensations and thoughts streaming through the mind. The repetitive practice of imagery techniques can help this meditative learning to occur.
The practice of guided imagery is extremely portable, as it relies on nothing more than one's imagination and concentration abilities which people always have at their disposal (provided they aren't exhausted). However, like most techniques requiring mental concentration, it is usually most successfully practiced without interruption in a setting that is free from distracting stimulation. The bathroom can be used in a pinch, if no other suitably private and peaceful location is available.
There is no single correct way to use visual imagery for stress relief. However, something similar to the following steps is often recommended:
- Find a private calm space and make yourself comfortable.
- Take a few slow and deep breaths to center your attention and calm yourself.
- Close your eyes.
- Imagine yourself in a beautiful location, where everything is as you would ideally have it. Some people visualize a beach, a mountain, a forest, or a being in a favorite room sitting on a favorite chair.
- Imagine yourself becoming calm and relaxed. Alternatively, imagine yourself smiling, feeling happy and having a good time.
- Focus on the different sensory attributes present in your scene so as to make it more vivid in your mind. For instance, if you are imagining the beach, spend some time vividly imagining the warmth of the sun on your skin, the smell of the ocean, seaweed and salt spray, and the sound of the waves, wind and seagulls. The more you can invoke your senses, the more vivid the entire image will become.
- Remain within your scene, touring its various sensory aspects for five to ten minutes or until you feel relaxed.
- While relaxed, assure yourself that you can return to this place whenever you want or need to relax.
- Open your eyes again and then rejoin your world.
Several books and many audio programs are available for people who are interested in learning more about using visualization and imagery techniques in order to promote relaxation.
Psychologists Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. and Stefanie Goldstein Ph.D. have produced an audio CD titled Mindful Solutions for Stress Anxiety and Depression, which can be purchased from their website. You can listen to (and benefit from) a sample 5-minute guided breathing meditation from that CD just below. Short though it is, daily practice using this sample can be transformative. Research conducted in 2005 by Dr. Elisha Goldstein demonstrated that study subjects who spent 5 minutes a day practicing a guided meditation exerise similar to this one reported significantly reduced stress levels and enhanced feelings of well-being compared to control subjects. For maximum benefit, we encourage you to bookmark this page and return daily to practice with this free sample.
A short list of books on the subject appears below:
You can also find catalogs of audio guided imagery products (including free downloads) at Health Journeys or The Healing Mind.