Imagery

Mental Stress Management

A gentle stream with grassy banks.

© iStockphoto
yulkapopkova

Imagine that you are soon going to give a presentation to your organization's executive team, and you just can't seem to focus.

You're nervous and stressed, and when you try to rehearse your opening lines, your mind goes completely blank. The more you try to practice your material, the more stressed you feel!

So, you take a break, you close your eyes, and you remember the last vacation that you took in the mountains. You think of the gentle stream where you stopped to rest. You can hear the birdsong, smell the clean air, and feel the sun's warmth on your skin. You slowly begin to relax as you imagine this peaceful scene, and your heart rate and breathing slow down. When you open your eyes a few minutes later, you feel relaxed and in control, and you have no trouble remembering your opening lines.

Have you ever used your imagination to escape, or cope with a stressful situation? If so, you were using "guided imagery" to relax. In this article, we'll look at how to use imagery to manage stress, and we'll discuss how you can use this technique to cope with difficult situations.

What Is Imagery?

Guided imagery is a stress management technique, where you use your imagination to picture a person, place, or time that makes you feel relaxed, peaceful and happy. Imagery is slightly different from other stress management techniques, in that it relies on the use of all of your senses.

For instance, in your imagination you hear the sound of birds chirping, you see the drops of dew on the grass, you feel the breeze on your skin, you smell the wildflowers, and you taste the cold drink. In imagery, using all of your senses is what creates such a powerfully relaxing experience, and this is why it's so useful in managing stress and coping with difficult situations.

There are several other ways that you can use imagery to help you relax. For example, you could create mental pictures of stress flowing out of your body, or of your problems, your distractions, and your everyday concerns being folded away and stashed in a padlocked chest.

Finding This Article Useful?

You can learn another 57 stress management skills, like this, by joining the Mind Tools Club.

Find Out More

Some people are skeptical about the effectiveness of using imagery. However, research suggests that it can be incredibly effective in lowering your stress levels.

For instance, one study found that using stress management techniques alongside relaxation imagery, and even just using imagery alone, significantly reduced participants' blood pressure. Another study, which researched the effectiveness of imagery on breast cancer patients, found similar benefits: patients who used imagery to cope with their disease experienced less stress, more vigor, and a higher quality of life than those who didn't use the technique.

As well as these examples, many other studies have successfully used imagery to lower stress in patients suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, abuse, depression, and other conditions, including occupational stress.

Note:

Imagery is similar to Visualization , in that you're using your imagination for a specific purpose, however, visualization is more focused on a definite outcome. People use visualization techniques to imagine completing goals or working through a situation with an exact outcome in mind. Both are useful, but guided imagery is more relevant for managing stress.

Using Imagery to Reduce Stress

To start managing stress using imagery, take the following steps.

Step 1: Find a Quiet Place

If possible, find a quiet place to sit down. This could be a park bench, an empty room, or even your office. Close your eyes, and breathe slowly and deeply to calm down.

Step 2: Choose Your Setting

Once you feel relaxed, picture yourself in the most peaceful environment that you can imagine. This can be an imaginary place, or a memory of a place or time that has a special meaning to you.

The scene that you imagine is highly personal and should ideally be one that you feel emotionally drawn to. However, if you're having trouble thinking of an image, consider using the following:

  • Relaxing on a sunny tropical beach, listening to the waves, and digging your toes into the sand.
  • Curling up in an armchair in a remote cabin, surrounded by mountains and snow, and relaxing in front of a fire with a cup of hot cocoa.
  • Going on a picnic with your family in your favorite secret spot.
  • Sitting by a waterfall deep in the forest, feeling the gentle moisture against your face, and listening to the birds.

It's important to remember that imagery's effectiveness relies on using all your senses.

For instance, don't just imagine yourself in the remote mountain cabin. In your imagination, look around you. Pay attention to the rustic feel of the room. Feel the fire's warmth against your skin, and inhale the musky, earthy scent of the wood's smoke. Touch the cozy blanket, taste the sweet hot chocolate, and look out of the window at the deer finding food in the snow outside. Experience the feeling of having nothing else to do but eat, read, and go snowshoeing.

Your goal is to immerse yourself fully in the scene: this includes what you can see, taste, touch, and smell, as well as how you feel. The more details that you can include in your imagery, the more effective this technique will be.

Tip:

Keep in mind that when you first begin to use imagery, it might feel strange, and you may have difficulty immersing yourself fully in your imagined scene. With practice, this will get easier; your imagination will get stronger, and you'll be able to enter a relaxed state more quickly.

Step 3: Relax

Stay in your relaxed scene for as long as you feel comfortable, or as long as your schedule allows. Continue breathing deeply, and try not to let any outside thoughts intrude.

When you're ready to leave, sit quietly, and let your mind turn back to the situation at hand. You'll now feel much more relaxed, in control, and ready to tackle your challenges.

Key Points

Guided imagery is a useful technique for managing stress and coping with difficult situations. In this technique, you imagine a scene, time, or place that is peaceful and that has an emotional connection with you.

Step 1: Find a quiet place.

Step 2: Choose your setting. Imagine yourself there, use all of your senses to immerse yourself in the experience, and include as many details as possible.

Step 3: Relax, for as long as your schedule allows you to.

Keep in mind that imagery is most effective when you use all your senses. The more details that you can include in your imagined scene, the easier it will be to relax.

Warning:

Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, it can cause death. While stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses, or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

Add this article to My Learning Plan
Mark article as Complete
Comments (15)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi David,

    You have provided us with a wonderful example of using imagery to reduce stress and induce calm. While technology can provide great benefits, many of us have difficulty turning it off to give our brains an opportunity to rejuvenate.

    And, thank you for the link to photo gallery. The images are beautiful. Did you know that recent research has proven that time spent in nature calms the mind? A 20 minute walk in a green space or park is all it takes.

    Michele
  • Over a month ago 12oclock wrote
    Hello Mindtools members and public,

    David here,
    When I look out my window each day the images are such that it provides a new thought process and a comfortable sense. Working on-line and learning from the many professors and classmates trekking through the Ashford library and Purdue owl and many other tools at times can become over whelming. A quick glance outside my window or in the summer months a bike ride with new visual effects clams and creates renewed energy.

    A thought process that changes in the moment and day in and day out.

    Thank you mindtools again for another excellent shared article.

    Oh, try this link with local images and images around the globe by an artist in a local gallery here in South Lake Tahoe, Ca. http://www.theeadingtongallery.com/Artist.asp?ArtistID=41695&Akey=E893GPT3

    David
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi nikki1957,

    I use imagery when I am feeling stressed and it does help to calm a racing mind. I use images of places and situations where I felt most at peace and happy. Deep breathing also works for me.

    Michele
    Mind Tools Team
View All Comments