How to Use Guided Visualization to Diminish Stress and Anxiety
It’s hard to find a decent guided visualization, isn’t it?
That’s because too many people focus on the “visual” part, when really good guided meditations always include multisensory experiences.
Without integrating the visual with the kinesthetic, auditory, emotional, conceptual and senses of space, taste, and smell, using your mind’s eye on its own can never be as powerful as what I imagine you want to achieve.
So let’s look into this topic a bit deeper and give you a guided visualization and tips on how to build your own.
Here’s what this post will cover:
What is Guided Visualization?
Humans have been guiding each other’s mental states since the dawn of language. Plato’s Dialogues are filled with stories like the Allegory of the Cave and the Tao Te Ching uses many metaphors to teach us how to live better in the world.
Although these texts are typically read (or heard as audiobooks), they rely upon similar techniques in order to guide us to certain conclusions.
Perhaps Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) is the person who really started working with guided visualizations. Mesmerism evolved from “animal magnetism” and the use of magnets on the body to a practice that involved the “mesmerist” staring, waving hands, and using language to try and induce healing for the sick.
We now classify mesmerism along with other pseudosciences like phrenology and alchemy.
According to Sabine Arnaud in On Hysteria: The Invention of a Medical Category between 1670 and 1820, it is possible that Mesmer’s greatest influence was on other practitioners, not patients. He was known to tell people, “Go forth, touch, cure.” This suggestion directly influenced the development of hypnotism.
Although discredited, to this day people still use pseudoscientific techniques that resemble Mesmer’s strategy, including bracelets, crystals, and forms of touch they believe to have an effect on the “animal magnetism” of the human body.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) later developed the hypnotism spawned by Mesmer and used mental imagery in psychoanalysis.
Inspired by his teacher, Jean-Martin Charcot, Freudian concepts of “free association” encouraged patients to generate and describe their own mental imagery.
They were typically guided by the analyst’s encouragement to speak “whatever comes to mind,” and overcome their inner objections or “resistances” to sharing their thoughts and fantasies.
Guided visualization really hit its stride with figures like John Grinder and Richard Bandler, who arrived in the world of hypnosis around the same time the mass production of audio and video distribution became possible.
As these men worked on developing neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), they drew heavily upon the ideas and therapeutic work of Milton H. Erickson.
One of Erickson’s main observations was that not all people respond to the direct commands of hypnosis. For example, direct commands will involve statements like, “When I end the count of three, you will close your eyes. One… two… three…”
As an alternative to this kind of command structure, Erickson developed a number of “passive” or “indirect” statements that led individuals to follow commands as if it was their own idea.
“Whenever it feels right, you may like to close your eyes, if you feel your lids growing heavier along with the sound of my voice.” These statements not only make you feel as if it is your choice to follow along, but they are multi-sensory.
For the purposes of this tutorial, guided visualizations involve a mixture of:
- Direct suggestions (or commands)
- Indirect suggestions (or passive commands)
- Multi-sensory images and feelings (like feelings, the images of eyelids growing heavier and references to sound)
The 3 Key Benefits of Guided Visualization
Given the questionable history of these techniques when it comes to real results, are there any benefits to practicing any kind of visualization?
There’s a catch, however. There always is. Perhaps a personal story will help explain the benefits and encourage you to experiment with an open mind — but not one so open that your brains fall out.
1. Defining Outcomes and Creating Action in the Absence of Motivation
When I was completing my Ph.D., I absolutely did not want to write my dissertation. I spent a few years gathering research, but my graduate supervisor told me something that completely deflated my ambition.
Whereas I had big plans to become a professor who would teach my heart out and write many books, Jamie felt called to give me a wake-up call.
We were walking along Bay Street in Toronto on our way to a cafe. He told me that academic jobs were drying up, and even if I published dozens of articles, it was going to be nearly impossible for me to get a tenure-track job.
At that moment, I puffed out my chest and swore that I would build my own university if that’s what it took. Now, it turned out I sort of have built my own university on the Magnetic Memory Method website, but shortly after his talk, I fell into a slump.
Fortunately, I’d studied hypnosis and even gotten certified by the National Guild of Hypnotists through the Ontario Hypnosis Centre. (I didn’t take the course to become a hypnotherapist, but rather as part of my dissertation research on friendship.)
Thanks to the training, instead of moping around and doing nothing back in my Manhattan apartment, I recorded a guided visualization for myself.
My script included multi-sensory ideas, images, and feelings that helped me mentally experience the accomplishment of finishing my Ph.D. and visualization taking the specific steps that still needed to be done.
2. Increase Positive Thoughts
Day after day I listened to my own voice each morning before sitting down at the computer.
I no longer have the exact script, but it was written in the present-tense and went something like this:
As I sit at the keyboard, I feel the ideas and words flowing effortlessly through my fingers. With each keystroke, I can see my degree materializing in a frame on the wall. The sound of typing inspires electric energy as I look forward to submitting the finished document. The more I focus on the task at hand, the more my interest and energy grow and the taste of success fills my mouth. I enjoy the smell of victory as I continue to organize and refine my ideas, making sure to pay attention to the journey and cherish every moment.
This form of guided visualization helped me center myself, focus, and just get the job done.
I believe it works because it follows the immersive, multi-sensory KAVE COGS formula:
Kinesthetic – words like flow, feel, energy
Auditory – words like sound, typing
Visual – imagining the degree itself, phrases like “look forward”
Emotional – words like victory, cherish
Conceptual – reference to the ideas I was working on
Olfactory – phrases like “the smell of victory”
Gustatory – references to taste
Spatial – sitting at the keyboard, the act of organization
Would I have written my dissertation without all of this “self-hypnosis”?
Perhaps, but I doubt it. And if I had, it would have been a much more miserable experience than it was. But because I had a guided visualization to get myself started, I was able to immerse myself in the task with a positive outlook despite my supervisor’s grim outlook.
3. Reduce Stress
In reality, my supervisor was both right and wrong. I never did get a formal academic position, despite having many publications.
However, I did wind up winning a Mercator research grant that kept me very busy teaching Film Studies in Germany.
And that was not only on the strength of my dissertation and the fact that I got my doctorate done. It was also because I knew how to be calm, cool, and collected when applying for such grants.
In fact, I used a very similar guided visualization before going to defend my dissertation and before getting each and every teaching job I’ve had in the years since. It’s a very simple visualization meditation that involves a bench, a lake, and a bike.
There are many more benefits. For example:
- Many athletes use visualization to increase their performance.
- Entrepreneurs use business plans to help create vision statements for their companies.
- Students use mental images of their future careers to help keep them moving forward.
The trick is that you need to visualize accomplishments that are within your current range of skills.
For example, if you have no skills in developing websites, you can visualize yourself as a millionaire enjoying the beach until you’re blue in the face. But it’s very unlikely to happen.
However, if you create a visualization that helps inspire you to complete a web development course, this simple and realistic practice can provide what amounts to a simple ego boost.
Exactly the kind I needed to shut up my monkey mind and its objections and keep my focus on the tasks at hand. I still use such visualizations to this day!
But please note that I also always catch myself when visualizing — I make sure that I have the competence to actually accomplish what I’m visualizing. If I don’t, I correct the vision so it’s within the realm of my current abilities.
3 Guided Visualization Exercises That Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Another form of visualization I’ve benefited from involves guided meditations that tackle discomfort arising from stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, I’ve had my fair share of both, particularly during high school and university.
Never use guided meditations while driving or operating any kind of machinery.
Use of the following exercises is not to be considered medical advice or as an alternative to seeking professional medical help. Even if you don’t think you need it, leaving stress and anxiety unchecked is not advised.
I personally have always sought proper, medical help even when I’ve explored alternative therapies.
To make the most out of these guided meditation examples, I suggest you:
- Rewrite each script in your own words
- Include as many KAVE COG elements as possible
- Use the present tense
- Add in your own goals
- Record each script you create in your own voice
- Listen to your guided visualizations while seated or lying down
- Experiment with having your eyes open and closed
Here are 3 of my favorite guided meditations.
1. The Field and the Sky
As I breathe deeply, in and out, I center my mind on an expansive image of a field. I walk lightly along a path through its center, my hands brushing the soft tips of wheat. I feel each and every one, relaxing deeper and deeper as I move towards an opening in the field beside a tree.
I sit beneath the tree and feel a comfortable breeze. I lay on my back and stare into the wide-open blue sky. With each breath, I feel more and more connected with the earth, the wind, and the colors of the sky. I pull the cool blue into my body, and circulate the sky itself through my body. The air flows through my body, and as it does I clench my fists, hold and release them. Each time I clench my fists, my body relaxes and I feel more and more connected with the earth and the sky.
2. The Volume Adjuster
With each and every breath, I allow my ears to tune deeply into the sounds around me. I connect with each sound as a physical sensation. I notice the volume and feel the sound as sensations deep in my ears. Each sound and feeling relaxes me, flowing in synchronicity with my breath.
As I breathe and listen, I imagine a music recording studio form around me. On a monitor, I see a graphic readout of the sounds in the world around me. On a control station, I reach out and feel a volume dial beneath my fingers. I control each and every sound, and as I make the sounds around me louder and quieter, I feel more and more deeply relaxed.
3. The Mirror
In a room, I breathe deeply and walk towards a full mirror. As I look at my feet, they become deeply relaxed. With each breath I take, my eyes travel up my body. My calves, thighs, hips all become deeply relaxed. I realize that my body and the body in the mirror are becoming relaxed in uniform, and this realization relaxes me even more deeply. My belly, chest, hands, arms, and shoulders all relax deeply, just by looking at them in the mirror, twice as relaxed as I share the relaxation with my image.
The muscles in my face all relax as I allow the tension in my jaw and cheeks to release. All tension around my temples and forehead completely falls away, each breath melting the tension and stress out of my body. When the moment is right, I breathe deeply and step into the mirror, doubling my comfort and relaxation yet again as I fuse with the perfect realization of myself as a deeply and completely relaxed person, feeling whole and complete in every regard.
4. BONUS: The Infinity Visualization
As I breathe in and out, I become aware of my awareness. I notice my consciousness as a substance flowing through time. To become more intimate with it, I ask the following questions without expecting any specific answers. I accept anything that arises, including ‘I don’t know.’
When did my consciousness arrive? Where exactly is my consciousness? Can I find the easternmost point of my conscious awareness? The westernmost point? The southernmost? The northernmost?
As I breathe and relax, I imagine an infinite line projecting out into space in front of me. I imagine another projecting behind me, more to the left and the right and directly upwards from my head. Although I accept that infinity is impossible to imagine, I feel each of these lines extending outward without end.
On the line projecting in front of me, I place a hotel. In this hotel are infinite rooms, each filled with a relaxed version of myself. The more I think of each version of myself extending into infinity, the more relaxed I become. When I am ready, I make room for myself in the hotel by asking every other version of myself to move one room down. All of infinity moves to make space for me, and as I move into the room, a new me emerges from the infinite line behind me to take my place, making me deeper and deeper relaxed.
Note: The hotel part of this exercise is inspired by David Hilbert’s Grand Hotel Paradox.
Other Forms of Guided Visualization You Can Try
Not everyone finds guided imagery easy. Although I’ve always allowed myself to “go along” with visual suggestions, I don’t actually see images in my mind. Many people with “aphantasia” don’t.
But that has never stopped me. I’ve used recordings from others and watched videos. But ultimately, writing and recording my own has worked by far the best.
If you don’t feel confident about making your own recordings and want to buy programs from others, many will do. It’s just important that you align your goals with reality and take everything with a grain of salt.
There are a lot of sharks out there — and, as with my dissertation, all the visualization in the world wasn’t going to get it written. I still had to show up and turn my research into sensible sentences and paragraphs that fulfilled the requirements of my degree.
Other kinds of visualization you can try involve mind mapping. For example, set a goal for relaxation. Then, start by drawing a central image of what that state is like for you. From there, draw a number of branches and free-associate. The process itself is deeply relaxing – especially if you find task-oriented projects like language learning anxiety-inducing.
You can also seek out adult coloring books. I even created one for you called the Creativity Kickstarter. It’s a fun and easy way to throw on an episode of your favorite podcast and relax through a kind of visualization that is guided in a completely different way.
I highly recommend coloring while listening to any positive audio programming that relates to goals you want to achieve.
Just remember: Everything you visualize should always start from the basis of your ability to achieve the goal in question. That way, you simply cannot fail.