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Elizabeth Scott, M.S.

Positive Imagery: A Creative Route To Stress Relief

By January 8, 2013

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Positive Imagery can be perhaps an unexpected yet effective tool for stress management. I say "unexpected" for two reasons: first, we may think of meditation, exercise, breathing, self-hypnosis, and many other stress management techniques more commonly than positive imagery as "helpful with stress," but imagery really can help; second, imagery is often thought of for other purposes besides stress management. Imagery is already known to be used to simulate practice and enhance sports performance, as in the case of basketball players imagining making that basket over and over until they can more easily do it on real life. Imagery has also been used to build confidence and reduce test anxiety, and for similarly practical purposes; rehearsing things we may have a fear of doing can help us to become more comfortable with the idea of doing them, and that alone can help improve our performance. However, imagery can be used for stress management in several ways as well.

As I mentioned, positive imagery can enhance confidence and alleviate anxiety, as well as improve performance and increase abilities. All of these things can reduce stress. But positive imagery can also help in other ways. It is believed that we think in images, and that behavior and emotions are preceeded by images; by "pre-cognitively" altering limiting thoughts and ideas through imagery, it is believed that we can change our subconscious mind, and our habitual thought patterns. There is also evidence that when we use positive imagery to get ourselves into a better mood, we perform better on a variety of tasks. (And this improved performance, of course, can lead to less stress as well.)

Positive imagery is similar to hypnosis and relaxation, but different in important ways, too. Positive imagery seeks to alter limiting thoughts and behaviors by shifting perceptions, as with hypnosis. However, hypnosis works with trance-like states, attempts to access unconscious thoughts, and generally requires a practitioner--or at least a tape of one. Imagery is a fully-conscious activity that can more easily be self-directed. Imagery has also been linked with different outcomes than relaxation alone. Basically, positive imagery tends to bring even more beneficial results in regards to relaxed changes in your body, and may be able to bring a greater quality of life than can relaxation therapy alone, as imagery can help you to change the way you think and react in life.

Looking for a simple way to use positive imagery? Here are a few to try right now:

  • Vividly imagine yourself feeling more relaxed. (This quick tutorial can show you how.)
  • Imagine yourself mastering a stressful situation in your life. Be sure to imagine all of it in full sensory detail--follow the tutorial above, and then take things a step further by imagining the activity you are hoping to master, and imagining yourself mastering it.
  • You can also use imagery to reframe a situation--either by altering how you see it (seeing something as a challenge rather than a threat can make it less stressful), or in how you react to it--envision yourself trying a different response and being met with success.
These techniques may take some practice, but the results are worth it. See you you can envision your way to a less stressed lifestyle!

Freeman, L. W. (2009). Mosby's complementary and alternative medicine. (3 ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby.
Picket, A.; Coughtrey, A. E.; Matthews, A., and Holmes, E. A. (2011). Fishing for happiness: the effects of generating positive imagery on mood and behavior. Behavior Research and Therapy, Vol 49(12), pp. 885-91.
Seif-Barghi, T.; Kordi, R.; Memari, A.; Mansournia, M.; and Jalali-Ghomi, M. (2012). The effect of an ecological imagery program on soccer performance of elite players. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol 3(2), p. 81.
Munroe-Chandler, K.; Hall, C. R.; Fishburne, G. J., Murphy, L., Hall, N. D. (2012). Effects of a cognitive specific imagery intervention on soccer skill performance of young athletes: Age group comparisons. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Vol 13(2), pp. 324-331.

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