5 Visualizations to Help Lessen Anxiety
There are many visualizations out there, and many people who find the concept of them to be trite. But with anxiety rising and some solid evidence behind visualization as a relaxation technique, we think they're worth a try. Learn what visualizations can-- and cannot-- do, and get five solid examples of ones you can try today, perhaps even without rolling your eyes, in today's Baggage Check.
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You’ve no doubt heard someone tell you, at some point, that meditation is good for you—or specifically, that visualizations can be really helpful in lessening anxiety. And it’s true! But it also seems… hokey. And impractical. Do you feel like you could use some visualizations that don’t make you roll your eyes before you’re even ten seconds in?
Today we’re getting specific about some mental tools that you can use in the moment when you are feeling stressed. There is solid evidence that using your mind’s eye—when you have one— for a calming visual can calm your nervous system and help quiet your stress response. Perhaps you’ve tried visualizations before and they haven’t worked, or perhaps you find them helpful and could use some additional ones. If you’ve ever felt like you need a few more tools for combating anxiety in the moment in tangible, effective ways, you’ll want to listen to today’s Baggage Check.
Welcome. I’m glad you are here! I’m Dr. andrea Bonior and this is Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Bagage Check is not a show about luggage or travel. Incidentally, it is also not a show about whether Fraggle Rock was just one big hallucination.
Okay, let’s get to it.
We are a stressed-out bunch. My seminar students and I were just pouring through some data on anxiety levels in the United States, and it’s just not good. Now, I can’t solve any of the systemic things that are causing us anxiety: inflation, job losses, political unrest, violence, a culture that values work and busy-ness and technology over wholeness and nourishment and meaning, unrealistic demands on parents, systemic racism, health care worker shortages, breakdowns in the education system…. Okay, wait, I was supposed to be helping you lessen anxiety today, so I will stop. My point is, I can’t solve any of those things, and I do not at all negate the fact that part of our anxiety is a very very natural response to the state of things which can best be described as, a grease fire spiraling out of control. But, there are tools to help us get through particularly tough moments in more manageable ways. And some of my favorite tools among those are visualizations.
Now, some important things off the bat. When I am talking about visualizations I am NOT talking about “If I picture a promotion, I will get it!” or “If I visualize getting six-pack abs that are so rock-solid that someone cracked an egg on them, there they’ll be!” There’s a lot of hooey out there—is that the official scientific label? Hooey? Hokum? Bunkum? Baloney? Balderdash? Hmm, seems I could have a lot of fun with a thesaurus today, that might be my hot date after recording this. But there’s truly a lot of nonsense that can lead people astray, and it pains me—this idea that by visualizing something you can make it true, and that’s a close cousin to the idea that if you aren’t meeting your goals, then you are fundamentally weak and don’t want it enough, which is a very close cousin to toxic positivity—that you just have to think happy thoughts, all the rest are unacceptable, and if you can’t handle that, then it’s your own fault. When in reality we know that the happiest people actually have found a way to accept and manage the presence of negative emotions, not avoid them or mask them or numb them or deny them. We talk about that a lot in some of our earliest episodes—in fact our very first episode here at Bagage Check. So when I am talking about visualizations, to be clear I am NOT talking about that! Look, if you picture a new Ford Mustang Mach-E convertible in your driveway, it’s not going to be there. Well, unless you had a whole lot of other methods of getting it that had nothing to do with your visualization. So please, let’s be clear, we’re talking about visualizations that can help lower the body and mind’s anxiety in the moment, not visualizations that are going to make you attain something, or are going to somehow attract the universe to behave in different ways.
The other thing I want to mention is that I know that not everyone can visualize—not everyone has a mind’s eye—in fact we had a fascinating interview on this with Serena Puang, in our aphantasia episode, Number 20—there are lots of folks who have typical vision in life but they cannot evoke images in their mind. And those who are vision-impaired may not have the same visual representations of objects or scenarios either. So, I recognize the limitations of this for some filks, for sure, but I also think that sometimes evoking the scene and everything that goes with it—the idea of pausing, of being in a safe and comforting space, of summoning what the other senses like touch or smell or hearing might be experiencing in some of these scenes—can be helpful. So I truly believe there is something for everyone today.
Because again, anxiety is at very heightened levels. It spiked during covid, but hasn’t gone down in the ways we’d hoped, and frankly wasn’t doing too well before Covid either. People are reporting very high levels of stress, and a high level of uncertainty about the future.
It's important to understand that stress—and by which I mean the classic definition of the stress response, which is your reaction to a stressor (a trigger)—is multi-faceted. It involves not just your thoughts, but your emotions, your behavior, and your body. When we feel like we are under a chronic stress response, or one that is particularly severe or unrelenting, anxiety begins to follow us—to the point of ingraining a negative, fearful mindset (even beyond what is warranted.)
There are many ways to address anxiety: but as mentioned, today we'll tackle visualizations, which are shown to help increase the body's calm, which in turn helps counter anxious thinking. Many of these originated with mindfulness exercises and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and are expanded upon in Detox Your Thoughts.
It may feel strange to try this if you never have before; if that's the case, don't fret. It might actually feel really, really hokey. But I promise there is science behind this. Choose a relaxed, quiet, and private time and get your body comfortable. After you have read over the one you want to try, close your eyes. As you visualize the scenarios below, observe your breath and attempt to take nice full inhales through the nose, and nice slow exhales through the mouth. There is no "right" way to do these; there is no particular goal you have to achieve. The key is to try, and to see if any of them resonate with you. And if you find even a little relief from these exercises, keep practicing!
1. Leaves on a stream.
This one is a classic. Imagine that you are sitting on the edge of a stream, perhaps with a waterfall in it. Try if you can to hear what the stream sounds like, and to feel the ground under you. Maybe there is a certain fresh, woodsy smell that accompanies your experience in your mind.
Now picture a particular negative thought—perhaps an unduly catastrophic or negative one, one that is a distortion of reality, that is skewed and not reflective of what’s really going on, like “My friend doesn’t like me anymore because she didn’t text back” or “Because my kid got sent to the principal’s office, their pathway to ending up in jail will be direct and swift.” Or maybe there’s a thought that, even if it’s true, like how you screwed up on a work project three months ago, keeps intruding upon your day and it has absolutely nothing left to teach you or strengthen you or give you insight. Picture that thought as a leaf that is floating by, from the left side of your vision to the right. It goes at its own pace, but the stream keeps moving. You are not jumping in to the stream to hold on to the leaf, you are sitting on land, and watching the leaf pass. Breathe as you watch it gradually get far enough down the stream that you no longer see it anymore.
2. Birds flying away.
Here’s one that a lot of my clients have liked over the years. Imagine that you are sitting outside under the bluest of skies, with some puffy white clouds in front of a bright, full sun. Think of how the sun feels on your skin. Now imagine one of your most anxiety-provoking thoughts; maybe it's something like "Things won't get better". Picture a cluster of thoughts if you want—thoughts that weigh you down and feel heavy. Now envision them as birds that are walking in front of you, getting ready to take flight. Watch them start to fly away. One by one, they lift up and take flight. They each gradually disappear from your vision, as you keep up your slow, mindful breathing. And as they each disappear, the clear sky emerges, bluer than ever.
3. Debris going down the drain.
This one can be particularly helpful for those nagging little thoughts that feel intrusive and quick and greasy and gross. Can thoughts be greasy? I think so. Part of what we work on in cognitive de-fusion—that idea of separating yourself from your thoughts as a gentle, curious, nonjudgmental observer—is describing those thoughts as entities that have a quality all their own. A texture, a color, a weight—because the more we can give them sensory qualities, the more we can separate from them and realize that they are not US.
So. Start by envision yourself washing your hands, at a bright, shiny white sink. What are the sounds you hear? What is it like feel the sudsy water against your skin? You are getting a refreshing break, and your anxious thoughts are crumbly specks of dark dirt that are flowing off you, down the drain. They were on your hands, but they are coming off. After they circle the drain, they eventually disappear. You don't have to be repulsed by the thoughts; they cannot harm you. They simply take their leave once they flow away.
4. Smoke dissipating.
So for this one, let’s imagine sitting somewhere very comfortable and cozy, outside in your favorite kind of weather. What does everything smell like? Where are you sitting? What’s the feel of whatever that is on your body as you put weight on it?What are the sounds that you hear?
Now picture some of your most anxiety-provoking thoughts as a blurry, thick could of dark gray or black smoke. Watch its shape sitting near the ground, heavy and burdensome. Now, as you mindfully observe your breath, watch the smoke lessen in its intensity, growing more diffuse as its color lightens. Imagine the smoke representing your anxious thoughts as they become less severe, less heavy. Watch the dissipation of the smoke slowly and gradually to the point where it eventually disappears altogether. The air is clear now. Everything smells better. You can see more clearly. You can breathe more deeply.
5. A sun breaking through passing clouds.
This visualization is a little different, because instead of picturing only the passing of negative thoughts, you will also be picturing the breaking through of positive energy. Picture yourself comfortable and relaxed outdoors on a sunny day. Now imagine the sun as representing something positive and important to you, a value within your life: perhaps it's your compassion, your family, your connection to your community, or your energy. Maybe it’s love. Maybe it’s hope. Maybe it’s your strength. Now picture that as a bright and irrepressible force that is gradually shining through the burdens of the negative weights in your life, which are represented by the clouds. The sun is taking over, to the point where the clouds are moving out of sight altogether. Everything just got brighter and lighter. Now take a few moments to breathe. Slow inhales through the nose, slow, deep exhales out of your mouth.
So, how did some of these feel? Did they all feel hokey? Did you keep fast forwarding because it was—in the words of those kids today—total cringe? If none of these resonated with you, or they felt silly, that's okay. I’d really urge you to experiment. There are lots more people to walk you through these things, and all different kinds of meditations, online. If little bits resonated, or little visuals meant something, or you felt a little more calm in certain parts, take note of that and double down on it. The more tools that you try for your anxiety, and the more different ways you attempt to put them into practice, the more likely you are to find something that works for you in particular. So, keep trying! And I’m hear to hear about it, thoughts of hokeyness and all.
Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this has been Baggage Check. With new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on Instagram @baggagecheckpodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests. And you know you've got that friend who listens to like, 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told them where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, covered art by Daniel Merity and my studio security, it's Buster the Dog. Until next time, take good care.