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Do you ever picture yourself on a tropical beach, singing on stage or living your wildest dreams?
You may not realize it, but the mental pictures you create in your mind can have a powerful effect on your body and brain. Imagining yourself eating a decadent chocolate dessert literally makes your mouth water and your stomach rumble – even though you can’t actually smell, taste or see it in front of you. And fantasizing about that gorgeous guy or girl might make your heart skip a beat!
Visualization, also known as mental imagery or guided imagery, means you form a visual image of an object, landscape or situation in your mind. Many of us unconsciously do this every day, when we read a story, dream about the future or create a mental map of directions given to us.
But you can also purposely tap into your imagination and visualize peaceful, healing scenarios in order to support your health and happiness. Research has consistently shown that visualization helps you reduce stress, relax your muscles, and promote better sleep. Through this deep relaxation, visualization even has a positive impact on your immunity. It also literally takes your mind off pain, and significantly eases that aching. What’s more, by focusing on soothing scenarios or positive outcomes, visualization also reduces feelings of depression and anxiety.
So how does that work?
Visualization is based on the psychophysiological principle that every thought you have, triggers a response in your brain or body. You know how, when you’re watching a really scary movie, you sometimes hold your breath, tense your muscles or even jump from your seat squealing, even though you rationally know that it’s not really happening to you? Well, the same thing happens when you create vivid pictures in your mind – your brain and body respond accordingly.
So when you visualize a calming scenario like walking in the woods, imagining the forest air, the sound of birds chirping and the crunching of leaves and twigs under your feet, your breathing slows down, your heart rate lowers and your muscles start to relax.Studies even show that people who pictured themselves lifting weights actually increased their muscle strength, even if they were immobilized by illness or injury. Isn’t that amazing?
You can use visualization for lots of different reasons, to deeply relax your body and mind, to improve your mental health or to help you succeed in achieving your goals. But today we’ll focus on techniques that’ll help you visualize your pain away.
How to Do a Visualization for Pain Relief
It may sound too good to be true, but systematic research studies show that visualization or guided imagery can be an effective way to ease pain, lower stress and anxiety, and reduce the use of painkillers in people with arthritis and rheumatic diseases, fibromyalgia and cancer pain. Visualization is even used during heart procedures to reduce operative pain. Patients who pictured themselves being in a comfortable, safe place during and after the medical procedure expressed less pain and asked for fewer pain killers.
Obviously, visualization cannot take all your pain away. But it’s a free, always accessible technique without major side effects that deserves a place in your pain management tool kit.
So here are some pointers on how to actually do visualizations for pain relief.
1. Set the Scene
- Fit a quiet spot to sit down comfortably. You can use a chair, lean against a wall or sit cross-legged on the floor, whatever works for you. Try to limit interruptions and turn your phone on silent. Once you get the hang of visualization, you can do it anytime and anywhere – on the bus or train, while brushing your teeth – but first it has to become a habit.
- Close your eyes and take a few deep belly breaths to calm your body and mind.
2. Keep These Principles in Mind
There are hardly any rules to how to do a visualization ‘right’, but science has discovered some principles that will help you to get the most out of your practice.
It’s no surprise that strong emotions like fear or euphoria activate your nervous system, making your heart beat faster and breathe rapidly. In a similar way, mentally picturing emotional scenarios that seem pretty realistic, will trigger similar physiological responses as if you were experience it in reality. Long story short: a visualization will have the most impact on your body and brain when it evokes emotions.
Let’s say you’re listening to a guided visualization with a tranquil scenario about being on the beach. But it just doesn’t do anything for you – or worse, it only makes you think about itchy sand sticking to your legs or recall bad memories. That’s not going to help you release tension and ease your pain. You want to visualize a scenario that really makes you feel relaxed and comforted, whether that’s picturing yourself on the top of a mountain or curled up under the covers cuddling with your loved ones.
One way to create such a vivid picture is to engage all your senses. You see, contrary to its name, a visualization doesn’t just have to be a mental picture. You can create a multi-sensory movie in your mind’s eye, with you as the main character. Imagine what it feels like to walk barefoot through a beautiful garden, feeling the grass between your toes and the sun on your skin. Envision the butterflies flying by, the sound of the crickets and the sweet scent of the flowers blooming. Using your five senses will make your visualization come alive and truly calm your nervous system.
Finally, try to use positive images, words and sensations during your visualization. That won’t always be easy, especially when you’re dealing with pain and heartache. During your visualization, other thoughts will pop up, and even feelings like sadness, anger of anxiety may arise. When you’re suddenly overcome with negative emotions, you don’t have to push those feelings away. Instead, try to feel whatever it is you’re feeling, without judgement. Don’t get all worked up with thoughts running through your mind, just stay with the feeling and sensations until it slowly subsides. Then bring you attention back to your breathing and an imagery scenario that feels comforting to you.
3. Choose a Scenario
You can visualize any scenario that feels helpful to you, but here are a few commonly used script to visualize your pain away.
a. Relaxing Scenery
To calm your mind and release tension from your muscles, imagine yourself being in your happy place: on the beach, in the forest or floating in a nature hot spring. Take a moment to create a vivid picture, using all your senses.
For example, pretend you’re lying in the grass, looking up at the sky. You feel the damp grass prickling underneath you and that earthy smell as you inhale. The sun pleasantly warms your skin as you watch the clouds float by. With every cloud that passes, you breathe out and let go of your pain and sorrows. Let the tension in your body drift away like the clouds in the sky. Then, imagine the sun warming your relaxed body, starting at your toes, feet and ankles, working your way up to the top of your head, one body part at a time.
You could also combine visualizing a relaxing scene with progressive muscle relaxation for even more pain-relieving power.
b. Red Ball of Pain
In this therapeutically used script, you sit or lie down comfortably, breathe deeply and notice how every body part touches the chair, bed or floor. Next, mentally scan your body for pain, starting at your feet. Imagine your pain looks like red particles, big or small. Every time you come across pain, in your knees, abdomen or neck, envision yourself gathering these aches into one big red ball of pain.
When you finished your body scan, take a good look at the red ball of pain. Mentally play around with the size, making it bigger or mold it into different shapes. Now, try to make the ball smaller and smaller in your mind’s eye. When you feel like you can’t shrink it any more, slowly move the red ball away from your body, a little further with every exhalation. Use your breathing to push this mental image of pain out of your sight, crush it or make it explode, whatever works for you.
c. Shine a Light
Find a comfortable position and focus on your belly breathing. Imagine releasing tension from your body each time you breathe out. Once you’ve reached a state of deep relaxation, visualize a powerful, white healing light around your navel. Envision how this white light ‘lasers’ away all your pain and heartache.
You can let that healing light wander through your body, like a spotlight in a theatre, soothing every part it touches. Or you can imagine how that small white light around your navel gradually grows bigger and brighter every time you inhale, until it covers your entire body. Bathe in the healing white light as long as you wish.
You could also visualize that the white light cleans your body of all toxins, pathogens or harmful emotions, or consider it a divine light that heals you internally. Feel free to adapt the visualizations to best fit your needs.
The more you practice visualizing pain-relieving scenarios, the easier it will be to tap into that stage of relaxation when you need it the most. You’ll also discover which scenarios work best for you. Visualizations won’t magically take all your pain away, but it can be an accessible and effective method to help you manage your pain naturally.
Do you struggle to picture healing scenarios yourself? Flowly is a patented app that’ll take you through calming virtual realities, designed specifically to help you relax and ease your pain. Just enter the beautiful VR world and move your body and mind from a pain state to a flow state.
Have you ever done visualizations for pain relief? Which scenarios or scripts do you find most helpful?
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like this step-by-step guide to relieve pain paturally, learn how to do a loving-kindness meditation or take a look at 8 Mental Techniques to Cope with Chronic Pain.