Using Guided Imagery to Reduce Anxiety

I was talking to a friend the other day and was reminded of the importance of learning a number of different ways to harness normal anxiety.

She was recalling a major operation she underwent a few years ago. To prepare for it, she explored Eastern and Western methods for decreasing anxiety. She was surprised to find how much they helped her through that difficult time. She still uses techniques she learned then, when other stresses come up in her life now, ranging from work pressures to family conflicts.

You don’t have to be faced with an operation or serious illness to experience debilitating anxiety. Many stresses in our lives–good as well as bad stresses, I should point out–arouse the feeling.

While a limited amount of anxiety can actually bring you to the top of your game, sharpening your mind and reflexes, too much of it quickly overwhelms the nervous system.

Over the years I have taught many people to calm their nervous systems through testing out a variety of approaches. We treat each method as an experiment that may or may not work.

None of them are invasive or dangerous, but in stress reduction as in almost everything else, there are “different strokes for different folks.” So there’s a certain element of uncertainty that can add some interest and excitement to the process.

Some of these methods are simple to describe in writing. Others are a bit more complex and benefit from pictures to refer to. But let’s start with a very basic idea, similar to the one my friend has found so useful over time: anchoring to images that remind us of positive experiences.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds, for many people. Strange as it seems, we aren’t strongly wired to retain good memories. So don’t feel there is something wrong with you if a connection to a highly pleasant internal picture doesn’t immediately manifest itself.

Waiting until you are in the midst of a crisis before learning how to do this won’t work, so start practicing now.

You can try this activity sitting or standing or lying down, whatever position gives you the best ability to focus and find a scene that you associate with well-being and good times, a picture that draws you in and holds your interest.

Find something active in the scene and follow it with your eyes, guiding the action and keeping it going.

Here’s an example. There’s a beautiful pasture in the nature preserve where I often walk. It’s on a hill, open to the sky. Several horses graze there peacefully, but every so often they all start running back and forth from one end of the pasture to the other.

One begins and the others follow. They wheel and chase each other around the perimeters of the wooden fence. They form figure eights. They seem tireless in their play. Watching them run, seeing their muscles move effortlessly, sensing their exuberance makes me feel intensely alive.

So when I need to chill out, I bring up this memory and “watch” the horses until I feel calmer. If I need more time out, I change the direction and the patterns of their running and keep watching. I’m absorbed in the rhythms of their movements and my own body begins to mimic them.

There are many ways to use imagery and visualization to combat the human tendency to focus on pain, fear, and negative predictions. When you have a dream or project that is daunting, it’s all too common to find yourself paralyzed by anxiety. That’s the moment to interrupt the negative pattern of paralysis by letting the horses of your imagination run free and so free you to move forward again.

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