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Using Visualization to Relieve Anxiety

Can I be real with you all for a moment? Mental health therapy is wonderful - huge fan here, but... I often find that when I’m having a bout of anxiety, or fear, or sadness, or anger, it isn’t usually my regularly scheduled therapy day. Wouldn’t that be amazing? An on-call therapist who is available during life’s real and impromptu moments?

Anyway, I’ve learned that I have to be able to combat all of my hard feelings on my own. I go to therapy to learn how to combat them, then I put what I learn into practice. Something that really works well for me is visual image therapy and I’d like to share it all with you just in case it can help you too.

What is visualization?

Guided Therapeutic Imagery is what the docs call it when using it during a therapy session, but I call it visualization and it’s easy for me to do right in the comfort of my own home. It’s a technique in which mental health professionals help their patients focus on mental images in order to evoke feelings of relaxation.

How does it work?

Visualization works by using the connection between our minds and bodies to sort-of take control of our emotions. Think of it this way: You start to feel anxious about an upcoming doctor appointment next week. You have two choices - you can either sit and feel anxious for an entire week until the appointment, or you can try to take back some power over your own body by gaining control intentionally.

How to get started

I want to make it clear that I’m not a trained professional in visualization therapy. I’m just here to share my experience with you on what works best for me. This, in no way, should be a replacement for a mental health professional if you’re seeking that type of guidance.

First, find a quiet and comfortable spot where you’ll have minimal to no distractions. Think of a place you’d go for some peace and quiet or to meditate. Get comfy. Take ten or so slow, deep and calming breaths. Close your eyes, and simply guide your mind to think of what you want it to think of. It’s sort of like a daydream, but more purposeful.

If your mind starts to wander to other things, that’s okay. Just gently direct yourself back to what you’re doing and focus on your visualization.

What to visualize

There really is no right or wrong thing to visualize. I do, however, have two unofficial types of visualization I use to get me through my difficult moments in life. The first type is the type where I just really need to calm down, so I visualize myself laying on a towel all by myself on beach sand on a hot day. I continue to breathe deeply and slowly imagining my experience using my five senses: How does that warmth of the day feel? What do the waves sound like? Can I smell the salt in their air? And so on…

Examples of visualization

The second way I visualize is by using practiced visualizations that I know work for me. I’ll share two of them with you. The first, I call ‘The Umbrella’. I picture myself sitting under an umbrella, but instead of rain falling onto it, my worries are falling. I’m protected from my worries by the umbrella, as I watch them fall to the ground and wash away.

Another visualization I use frequently, but don’t have a name for, works just as well. Side note: I have a name for 'The Umbrella' because I also use it with my sons when they’re struggling with feelings. For this visualization, I imagine myself sitting next to a slow-flowing river, plucking my thoughts out of my head and releasing them into the river to be washed away - kind of like a leaf would float away if it fell from a tree above.

Before I release my thoughts, I say something meaningful to myself like, “Everything is under control,” or “I will not waste my time worrying today.”

Find what works for you

It’s important to remember that what works for me might not work for you. Your happy place might not be the beach on a hot day. You may prefer to be in a log cabin during winter, sitting next to a burning fireplace. Hmmm… I actually might try that one next time. It sounds fantastic. The goal is to breathe, relax, gain control over our thoughts by calming our brains and in return, calm our bodies. Practice makes progress… It gets easier over time!

Andrea Junge

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