By Brian Robinson.
Visualisation now figures in many therapeutic approaches. Pictures, videos, imaginings and a number of other visual aids are used to help re-process our minds to new versions of the truth. Versions which essentially question the beliefs associated with anxiety disorders. If you want to communicate with the brain, in a way it finds natural and easy to understand, then words will always take second or third place. Indeed, it could be argued, that too much of the wrong sort of dialogue plays a significant role in the run-up to anxiety.
Our brains are very adept at processing information in visual form. Before language came along that’s how we made sense of the world. For example, what do you think would be more relaxing: looking at the written words,“I feel calm”, or, looking at a picture of something that you associate with being calm and relaxed?
The central premise behind visualisation is that part of the brain cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. So, if we imagine we are safe and happy, our brain will to come to believe this is true. And in turn this will allow us to relax and distract away from worrying thoughts.
This idea, which really is a form of ‘brain trickery’, is something that is also widely used away from therapeutic circles. People such as athletes, businessmen and women believe that visualisation creates a positive energy that helps drive them towards their goals. It provides energy; it gives them motivation; and it powers their ambitions.
In terms of how to construct your visualisation, you first need to choose what form it will take. This is very much a personal thing and will vary from one individual to another. It has to be a place you love. What floats your boat: may sink another’s. And you don’t even have to stick to one visualisation, you can have a number of them. However, apart from loving your visualisation, remember it is also a relaxation exercise and you want to get that started in the right way.
Firstly, find a quite place where you will not be disturbed. Lie down, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then slow your breathing down into a breathing exercise. Use the outward breath as an outlet for your tension. Or, you could imagine a small trap-door in your ankle where the tension flows out by gravity alone. Allow your muscles to feel leaden so you feel you are sinking into the bed. Count up from one to ten relaxing as you go. When you are comfortable, you’re ready to go to your safe place.
Try and make the visualisation complicated. A desert island with just one palm tree may not be enough to distract you. An important principle is that you should become completely immersed in the vision. And as you become immersed, you will automatically distract away from your anxiety and you will begin to relax.
Visualisation is a technique you have to learn through practice. You build towards this state of complete immersion. Don’t worry if you find it difficult at first. The mere process of trying is a positive one. Indeed, the fact that visualisations take time to construct means they can act as useful mental distractions when you are troubled by anxious thoughts.
Here we will use the example of a garden, however, it could equally be a beach or a journey along a mountain trail. It doesn’t even have to be outside if you feel uncomfortable in open spaces. A stay at a luxury hotel or at your imaginary luxury home would be just as good.
Give your visualisation a strong structure. For example, go on an outward bound journey to get there. When you arrive go through a garden gate and close it behind you. This will help you stay in the image and help stop a drift back to reality. Notice how you are feeling and how your body is responding to the stimulation.
Make it a terraced garden. On the top level you might have your open views to the surrounding countryside. Gardens are places that you usually have to tend. So it might be a good idea to involve a work programme if you are that way inclined.
Go down ten steps to the next level. This will help you get deeper into the visualisation. Have some form of water feature there. We are all hard-wired to relax when we hear or see certain water sights or sounds. This will vary from person to person. It might be the trickle of a stream or the sound of rain hitting your window pane.
It is important to use all your senses and try and see everything in the smallest of detail. Smell the flowers; listen to the birdsong; touch the plants; taste the apples; put your hands in the waterfall. Or you could be more adventurous: ride on horseback, swim with the dolphins.
Then, go down another ten steps to the next level getting more and more relaxed as you go. This level should contain a bright blue sky. Again, we are all hard-wired to relax when we see the colour blue. On this level you could lie on a sunbed. Feel the heat from the sun and this will help with muscle relaxation.
You could also do an affirmation at this point. Affirmations work best when you are relaxed. They basically are positive repeated statements and there are three important things to remember. The first is they only work through repetition; secondly, if you can attach a picture to them they will work much better; and thirdly, if you are in a relaxed state they will go easier and deeper into your subconscious.
As with visualisation, lots of other people such as athletes and businessmen use affirmations. They help drive their confidence and self-belief. For example, a boxer has to convince himself that he is stronger and better than his opponent before he enters the ring. Lots of fights are lost, not through a lack of skill, but through a lack of self belief. Sometimes they are even lost through negative affirmations and that’s a trap we can all fall into.
Here are a few ground rules for affirmations:
- Practice them every day.
- Try to keep them short. The shorter the sentence the more chance it will have of entering your sub-conscious.
- Say them with conviction, attention and feeling.
- Try to visualise your goal at the same time. This will increase the overall effect.
- Keep affirmations in the present tense so say ‘I am getting better,’ not ‘I want to get better’.
- Keep all the wording positive so don’t say ‘I’m feeling horrible today but I will get better’.
- Try and use emphasis somewhere in the sentence.
Affirmations can be tailored depending on your goals. Here are a few examples geared to recovery.
- Every day in every way I AM getting better.
- My positive thinking IS CHANGING the way I feel.
- I am doing EVERYTHING I need to do.
- There is NOTHING actually wrong with me and I have NOTHING to fear.
- I am now TAKING back control and with every day I get stronger and stronger.
When you’ve finished your affirmations it’s time to end the visualisation. Count yourself back to reality. Bring a smile to your face and try and remember the nice emotions you’ve been experiencing. You now have a place of escape regardless of what may be happening elsewhere.