Mental Imagery and Visualisation
Overview: Mental Imagery and Visualisation
Mental imagery and visualisation can help us reach a desired state simply by creating and focusing on relevant pictures or ‘movies’ in our mind. Depending on the imagery we choose, this tool can help us feel more positive, calm and relaxed, confident, happy and so on. And being calm and relaxed or confident improves our performance because it takes us out of threat mode. This enables us to think more clearly and stay focused on the task at hand.
We now know that mentally visualising a situation or event can stimulate the same areas of our brain that would be affected if we were experiencing it for real . Evidence also shows that if we can visualise something going the way we want it to go – instead of worrying that it won’t go well – there is a greater chance it will go the right way for us. Athletes often use this approach when they have a big game. Jonny Wilkinson would visualise the kick going through the post over and over again before he actually kicked the ball. Michael Phelps the Olympic swimmer, would imagine that he had webbed hands and feet to improve his performance in the water.
Take a step back and think whether you already use positive imagery or visualisation to impact your mood and emotions or forthcoming situations. Or do you actually tend to imagine things not going how you want them?
Could different imagery have a more positive impact on the way that you approach your moods and emotions or forthcoming situations? What sort of images or visuals would be more useful or could leave you feeling more positive?
Try some of the exercises below to change your mood and emotions or feelings towards something that is approaching.
How to use visualisation:
There are different ways you can apply visualisation and mental imagery, depending on what you want to achieve. Below is a how-to guide to visualisation, with examples of common and useful scenarios to visualise.
One of the most important things to remember is always to visualise in the first person. Imagine every detail as though you are looking at it through your own eyes, living the moment you are visualising in the here and now. The more you can connect with how that experience feels, the more powerful and effective the visualisation is.
General Steps to Visualisation:
- Find the right place to do it. Of course you can visualise anywhere, as all you need is your mind, but it’s worth finding somewhere quiet if you are starting out.
- Some people find it easier to close their eyes when they do this, although it is fine to keep your eyes open if you prefer
- Choose what you want to focus on and visualise – it could be a technique, a skill, a place, a feeling, an outcome.
- Use your imagination to bring it to life as though you are living the imagery in the here and now. Think about all your senses and how they would be responding in that visualisation.
- How do things smell?
- What sounds can you hear?
- What can you touch and feel and what are the textures?
- What can you see?
- Are there people with you?
- What are your emotions and how does your body feel?
- Think of a word that best describes your visualisation, in terms of how it feels, or what you want to achieve or the overall experience. Now repeat that word three times as you take 3 deep breaths.
- That word will help you connect to that visualisation in the future if you want to engage with it again.
Possible visualisation scenarios:
Building a Confident self:
- Use the general steps above as a framework to work from
- Overlay this by identifying a time you were feeling really confident and think about what is was like, how you felt emotionally, how it felt in your body, what were you thinking about yourself and the situation around you
- Now think about that specific situation where you want to feel more confident
- Imagine yourself there, looking through your own eyes but with the confident feelings and thoughts you know you are capable of, based on the connection you have just made with a previous time you felt confident
- Imagine yourself being confident and achieving what you want to achieve, by bringing the situation to life, what can you see, hear, touch, feel whilst holding on to those confident feelings throughout your mind and body
- See it as though it is a movie playing out from the start of the situation to the end
- Visualise this as often as you can.
Completing a task:
- Use the general steps to visualisation as a framework to work from.
- Overlay these steps by thinking about and feeling what it is like to finish a task in the way you want to complete it
- Start at the beginning, thinking about anything you need to plan
- Think about the confidence you need to feel in yourself or in your body in order to complete it
- Consider how it feels in your body when you complete the task, where you are, who is around you and how positive you feel towards yourself
- See yourself experiencing a sense of accomplishment
- Connect with how good it feels to complete it so well
- Visualise the task such as this before you do it as often as you can.
- Use the general steps to visualisation as a framework to work from
- Identify and picture a place, scene or image that feels relaxing for you – it could be the beach, a forest or somewhere calm that’s uniquely meaningful to you
- It can help to have some form of water, like the sea, a waterfall, lake or river, and a wide landscape with things in the distance and in the foreground to focus on. What you find relaxing is completely individual to you
- Now engage in all your senses, what you can see, hear, feel (emotionally and physically), smell and touch.
- Immerse yourself in the place you are in ( in the first person, remember)
- Use these mental scenes for relaxation whenever you need them
Soothing and Calm:
Using compassionate imagery activates our soothing system (see the Emotional Regulation model) which allows us to stay calm and focused and enables us to perform better. It helps to slow yourself down and get yourself in a calm physical state to attend to what you need to attend to. The goal is to find an image which helps unlock compassionate feelings inside you. You can then use that image when you need to create a sense of calm and focus. This imagery will be specific to you.