Anxiety Treatment - A Lesson in Imagery

By: Tamas Gloetzer

One way to cope with a lot of stress or anxiety is to use your imagination. Believe it or not, your ability to imagine can be a powerful way to decrease feelings of anxiety.

First, pick a scenario that you find relaxing and safe. For some people, their bedroom is a relaxing and safe place. For others, sitting on a warm beach might be a favorite spot.

Once you've picked a scenario, try to identify as many details as you can that will help to make the scenario realistic. For example, if you choose a warm beach by the ocean, first paint a picture in your mind of what the waves sound like... then, add the feeling of the warm sun on your face... you might include what the sand feels like on your feet... and the smell of the salty air.

The goal is to create as vivid of a picture that you can. You should try to include all of your senses - touch, taste, smell, hearing, and vision. Vision is usually the easiest, but be sure to include all of your other senses. Have fun creating your personalized image!

Once you have picked and created the scenario, you should find a quiet place to practice imagining your scenario. You should try your best to put yourself IN the scenario. In other words, you should take the viewpoint of the main actor in the scene, rather than that of an onlooker. For example, if you are lying on your towel at the beach in your scenario, as you imagine looking down, you should be looking through your own eyes, and you should notice and feel your towel actually underneath you (vs. imagining watching somebody lying on their towel and looking down).

If you are having difficulty identifying a relaxing and safe scenario, you might want to try one of the already-mentioned examples or one of the following:

1. Getting a relaxing massage
2. Petting your favorite, snuggly pet
3. Sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard with a cool breeze
4. Taking a drive through the picturesque countryside
5. Listening to a nearby, gurgling stream

The actual scenario you pick should be one that fits you - and it doesn't necessarily have to be a situation where you are passive or sitting quietly - it only has to be somewhere you feel comfortable and relaxed. For example, a seasoned pilot may find that imagining himself/herself flying a plane through the clear blue skies is relaxing and comfortable. Or, a skilled downhill skier might imagine himself/herself gliding down the mountain through the fluffy powder.

Once you have identified your personalized scenario, you should practice engaging in the imagery. First, practice in a quiet place. When you are able to pull up the image in the snap of a finger, you are ready to use it when you need a relief from stress or anxiety.

Why does imagery help to decrease anxiety? When you imagine a pleasant scenario, you are distracted away from the anxiety-provoking situation. In addition, and possibly even more importantly, you are actually able to activate the physiological activity that is associated with positive emotion. Thus, you are actually activating the muscles that create a smile on your face (even if you aren't actually visibly smiling while you do the imagery). You are also likely activating physical responses such as decreased muscle tension and decreased heart rate, which work in opposition to the feelings of anxiety.

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