Recreating stress by mental visualization (and how to harness the power of visualization for good!)
This is a picture of me and my mom at my wedding in 2013. It makes me kind of sad to look at it because she wasn’t looking very healthy at that time and she struggled physically to make it through the day at the wedding. She died about a year after this picture was taken.
This blog post is about the power of our own mental visualization - the power of it to benefit our minds and bodies, plus how it helps us to create positive outcomes in our lives, but it’s also about the power of our minds to create visual scenarios that stress out our system.
And it’s about how meditation can help us be more aware of when we’re creating stressful scenarios in our minds and how we can use meditation to harness this power of visualization for good.
In this post, I share an example from my life when recreating something in my mind became physically and mentally overwhelming on a regular basis - the morning that my mom took her last breaths. And I’m also sharing how I found meditation to be a tool that allows me to be more aware of negative cycles in my mind and how I can use it to practice positive scenarios.
What is visualization
We’ll start with what visualization is. It’s the process of picturing something in your mind that hasn’t happened or recreating a past event. The mind can respond strongly to visualizations - it can even treat a visualization as if it’s something that is actually currently happening to us even though it’s only in the mind.
The power of using the mind to envision something can definitely have benefits for us, but it can also cause us physical and emotional stress.
The good and the bad of visualization
When used for our benefit: Mentally bringing up relaxing images and scenarios can turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. This puts us into rest and digest mode, which we need for healing.
Not so beneficial: When we rehearse and visualize negative scenarios in our minds, this can turn on the sympathetic nervous system response of fight, flight, and freeze.
We need this response when we need to take immediate action or we are in danger, but if we are just visualizing scenarios that haven’t happened (and might not ever happen!), then our bodies can get nearly as stressed as if the thing we’re visualizing is actually happening!
PTSD from my own mental replays
My mom passed away about 6 years ago at the age of 60. While there were definitely things about how she was taking care of herself that made me aware that she wasn’t in a healthy state, but even though I knew that, I was literally shocked when she got acutely sick for about a month and a half, which ended in us meeting at the hospital to turn off her life support system.
I’m a pretty visual person and have what I consider a good visual memory - a gift and a curse. And on the day that we turned off the life support system, the nurse told us that my mom wasn’t connected to the monitoring machines any more. But she was apparently. And as she struggled to gasp for each breath on her own, the monitor beeped and counted down her vital signs for a little over an hour.
And I can see every moment of it in my mind. The blinking lights, the sounds coming from the machines, the numbers counting down, the sound of her gasping inhales, the faces of my family gathered around for my mom. I remember so many details of those hours in the hospital that day that it feels like a curse to me. I can replay it in my mind like it just happened this morning.
And I did replay it in my mind. Over and over.
And for months after she died, I replayed it in my mind - not on purpose, it just kept making its way there. And each time I visualized it, I had an emotional reaction that was equivalent to the very day that it happened. Actually, it was quite a bit worse than the day that it happened because that day I took 2 or 3 xanax and was about as calm as a person could be - but also completely present and aware of every detail.
I started having a huge physical and emotional reaction every time I visualized that day. And this was becoming a serious problem as I was driving to and from work having this trauma reappearing in my mind. It was happening when I was teaching high school classes and when I was sleeping.
I knew I needed some help with this and I luckily got it with my therapist, who used the EMDR technique to help me release the traumatic emotional connection to the memory. I still remember every detail and feel sad, but now it’s not like I’m going through it when I recall the event. I don’t feel it in my body, my stress hormones aren’t released, I don’t have an emotional outpouring.
Where does meditation come in?
I’m sharing this as an example of how revisualizing stressful and traumatic situations can have such a powerful effect on both the mind and the body. I was lucky to get help with that specific situation at the time and lots of other support and now I lean on my meditation practice to keep me aware of when my mind is getting into negative cycles and visualizations.
Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are going through the motions in our minds - replaying the worst possible outcomes, creating fights with our boss or spouse that hasn’t happened, and envisioning ourselves failing.
That’s where meditation comes in - starting a practice of noticing and awareness is the first time to just see if you are visualizing negative scenarios and possibly putting your system into a stressed state without even noticing.
Visualization as a relaxation method
Just as running through stressful situations in your mind can cause stress in the body, the same can be true for purposefully visualizing positive situations.
In the meditations that I’m teaching this week, I am focusing on showing people that they can use their powers of visualization to paint safe, relaxing places in their mind’s eye and that this can actually have a positive impact on how they feel in their bodies and emotions.
Learning to create positive spaces in your mind where you can visit for a break are critical to giving the mind and body space to rest even when you are busy.
Learn more about guided visualization
If you want to experience an example of a guided visualization, check out my guided visualization to a relaxing beach using all of your senses, please join my Mindful Life on Demand Community Facebook group and check out the replay.
Using all five senses when you’re stressed can put you into the present moment and let you feel more grounded and aware of your thoughts before you react. In this meditation, I also teach people to use their senses to create a rich scene in their minds of a relaxing beach (it could be anywhere you feel relaxed and safe!). Feel, sense, experience, and allow your body to get into a relaxed state in the process.
More virtual classes for relaxation and reducing stress are being added weekly, so visit www.MindfulLifeOnDemand.com/schedulenow for the full schedule.
Thanks for listening to my story. I don’t always share really personal experiences like this unless it feels truly connected to something that I see changed in me or can help others. And right now I know that things are so stressful for people in so many different ways and I’m sure that many of you can connect with this idea of creating negative visual scenarios in your mind without even realizing that it’s happening.
I hope that the mediation and sound healing practices that I share can help to create even tiny shifts in awareness that can help you feel more positive energy in your mind despite what is going on around you. And, of course, if things are very dark or seriously stressful, please seek out professional help. I have always done this myself and hope that anyone who is suffering is able to do this also.