I know, I know.
Guided visualization and meditation can seem like some new-age hippie stuff, like something you’d never think about trying.
Yoga is fine, though. Yoga is normal. People go to yoga studios all the time, and they seem… good. Zen, even.
But you want me to sit on a little pillow and thing about NOTHING for thirty minutes? How is that going to help?
I used think that, too…
…until I went through Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training and started using the Dynamic Neural Retraining System.
Through chronic illness, my body has been stuck in “fight-or-flight” mode and sympathetic nervous system dominance. Because I had been so traumatized by things that happened to me outside of the house (like a heart rate randomly jumping to 224 while at the post office, or needing to sprint outside and then to the hospital when checking out at Costco because of sudden vertigo and severe allergic reaction), my body began to think this was the “norm.”
Always being on the lookout for danger.
But that’s the last thing that would actually help me heal. I needed to override that limbic system dysfunction somehow, and what better way than to use my brain?
I began seeking out information, training, and classes that would help me battle the signals my body was giving me to always RUN, and always be afraid.
These techniques don’t just work for people with chronic illnesses and anxiety. Guided visualizations can be incredible grounding for anyone who needs to take a moment out of a busy, chaotic day and recenter.
So I began to learn.
Did you know that your brain is plastic? Scientifically, this is called neuroplasticity, and it shows your brain can change and even repair itself. The act of positive visualization releases “happy” chemicals in your brain, as if you’re actually living in that moment again.
Here are two of my favorite guided visualization techniques to use when I’m feeling that adrenaline flowing through my body at an inappropriate time, or when I just want to reconnect my mind to my body and foster some positivity and happy brain waves.
Thinking of the Past
To start, create a list of ten of your favorite past memories. If you’re chronically ill, it helps to choose memories that happened BEFORE you got sick. This can be a short, bulleted list. Here’s an example:
- Camping on Sleeping Bear Dunes
- Being named valedictorian
- Graduating with my Master’s degree
- Backpacking in Colorado
- Getting my new puppy
- Winning state in tennis
- Family trip to Yellowstone
- Working at summer camp in 2009
- Road trip across the country with Mel
- Spa day in Florida
Now, choose one to write about, in as much detail as possible. You can skip this part if you’d like, but it helps draw out the imagery and sensory information. Write a few paragraphs, recalling what you felt like, and also what you heard, smelled, tasted, saw, and felt at that time. Be sure to hit all the senses, if possible. You want to transport yourself back into the memory.
Find a comfortable spot to sit or lie down, and close your eyes if that feels okay to you.
Relive the memory from start to finish, like a movie in your head. Pause to really soak in the emotions and bask in the joy and happiness this memory brings you. Sometimes, you might feel a warmth wash over you, and a smile spread across your face. This is the goal!
If you don’t remember every single detail, it’s okay to fill in as best you can.
This visualization part of the exercise should last 5-10 minutes, or longer, if it feels right to you.
Before you open your eyes, take note of how your body feels in response to this memory. Do you feel calmer? Is your constantly-tense back just a little bit softer? Is your jaw a bit more relaxed than usual? There’s no right or wrong here; maybe you don’t feel any difference. That’s okay, too!
Open your eyes (no rush) and notice the room around you. Stay there for as long as you’d like, then gently roll to your right side and sit up slowly.
Thinking of the Future
In the exact same process as above, make a list of ten future memories you’d like to create. These are things that haven’t happened yet, and you may or may not be actively working toward them. A short bulleted list is fine, here, too.
This is almost like creating goals, or visualizing a “win” before a big race (as many Olympians do). You want to set your body up for success, especially if you’re chronically ill. Picturing yourself being able to walk a very short nature trail might be a great future visualization for someone who is currently bedbound or physically struggling.
Please note, these should be happy moments. Nothing that will induce any stress at all. Here are some examples:
- Go camping with friends in Oregon (on the beach)
- Have a big birthday party for my (future) children
- Take a trip to Disney and ride the rides
- Finish a hot yoga class
- Grow a successful garden
- Go on a Mediterranean cruise
- Take a three-day kayaking trip and make new friends
- Make breakfast for my (future) children in a nice house I own
- Complete a Ninja Warrior training course
- Attend an outdoor concert (Mumford and Sons)
As you can see, some of these are very broad (such as the cruise), so it might help to break them down even more. Have a fancy dinner on a cruise ship while in Greece might give you more of a focus during your visualization.
Choose one to write about in detail. Since these haven’t happened, you get to make the visualization exactly how you want it. Be sure to consider all the senses, and think about if you need to break down your “future memory” into a more specific one for the sake of visualizing. Think about everything–what you’re wearing, what the temperature and weather is like, how your hair is styled, what you smell.
Find a comfortable spot to sit or lie down, and close your eyes if that’s comfortable.
Walk through this “future memory” in your head, step-by-step. Start as far back as you can. For example, imagine the joy and excitement you would feel when purchasing your Disney tickets and planning the road trip there. What snacks would you bring? What music would you listen to?
Imagine the entire moment or day, allowing yourself to pause and feel the emotions as if you’re really there.
The neuroplasticity of your brain relies on emotions to help it remember the new neural connections you’re creating in these exercises. Research shows that when you feel a strong emotion (this could be good or bad emotion–trauma or happiness), your brain perks up and listens. All your cells are waiting to see how to react.
Take as long as you need to for this practice: 5 minutes – 30 minutes or more. You don’t need to force anything. Gently open your eyes, take in the room, roll to your right side, and slowly sit up when you’re finished.
When working on neuroplasticity, I sometimes feel anxiety or discomfort, as if my brain is fighting back against my “manual override.”
For me, this fades away when I come out of the visualizing.
I also find it helps to create an environment of relaxation before diving into these practices. Personally, that means making sure the space around me is cleaned up and organized, and I have some kind of relaxing essential oil diffusing. Sometimes I play soft nature sounds. Whatever will make you the most comfortable and relaxed.
In these visualizations, we’re teaching our bodies to allow the parasympathetic nervous system, or “rest and digest,” to take over… even if ONLY during the short visualization time.
We’re inadvertently slowing our breathing, heart rates, and minds down. You don’t have to think about any of that, though; it will happen naturally as it’s supposed to while you’re visualizing.
Please note: If you’re dealing with trauma, PTSD, anxiety, depression, or any other medical condition, please see a trusted doctor. Visualization is in no way meant to treat or diagnose you, and I am not a medical professional.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to read On Yoga, Duende, and the Art of Letting Go. You might also like to grab a free self-care starter kit, which includes a fun little quiz to check on your current self-care state of affairs.
Have you tried any kind of meditation or visualization before? Maybe at the end of the yoga class, or on your own? Tell me about your experience with meditating and visualizing! Do you find it helps relax you?