Visualization is the second powerful tool you should can use when facing a frightening event in your life. It is a technique in which you calm yourself and reduce your anxiety by mentally placing yourself in a beautiful, relaxed setting where you can go whenever you need to.
I first learned about visualization years ago from a therapist named Sandra Campbell in a weight loss class offered by Kaiser Permanente. Some of us continued on with Sandra in group therapy when the class was over. These sessions turned out to be about much more than weight loss. With Sandra we explored some of the issues that had become roadblocks to success in our lives. It was actually in these sessions that she taught us how to use the tool of visualization to help clear these roadblocks.
Sandra had us sit in a comfortable chair, in a place with no distractions, and close our eyes. Then she guided us (Visualization is also called Guided Imagery), through a journey to a peaceful place, which we were told to imagine as she talked. Over the years I have crafted my own personal journey to use, not only when I am fearful or need to imagine my future, but in other kinds of situations, as well. Before a tennis match, for instance, I have created visualizations in which I see myself going through each point of the game and finally winning at the end. I’ve also prepared visualizations for job interviews and for times when I’ve asked my boss for a raise. The visualization I created for myself using Sandra’s guided imagery goes something like this:
I am at the Kaiser Hospital where I met with Sandra. But now I am outdoors, in a lovely garden. There is a glass elevator nearby, on the outside of one of the hospital buildings. I walk over to the elevator and press the down button. The door opens, I get in, and the door closes. Then it starts going down. I watch as I pass each floor, moving further and further down into the basement. Around the fifth floor, I start looking down, to where I am going. New surroundings start to become visible. I glimpse a blue sky and green trees. Finally, the elevator stops at the bottom, ten floors down. The door opens and I get out. This is a beautiful underground world that only I can access. At this point, I have a choice. Do I want to go to my Redwood forest or over to my beach? If it was a particularly cold day above ground or if I am feeling in need of comforting, I go to the forest. But if I want to feel the sun on my face and hear the ocean, I go to the beach.
If I choose the beach, I meander down a shaded, curving path to an old rowboat that had long ago washed up on the shore. This is where I keep my beach chair and towel. I remove them, then wander out into the sunshine and onto the sand. I close my eyes and face the sun, letting its warmth spread throughout my body. I take off my shoes and wiggle my toes in the warm sand before heading to my spot, which is at the midpoint of the curve on this crescent-shaped beach. As I walk, I breathe in the clean, salty air and listen to the squawking of the sea gulls. A light breeze kisses my skin. When I get to my spot, I put down my chair and towel and step over to the water’s edge, where I watch the waves roll towards me, break on the shore, and retreat, roll in, break on the shore, and retreat. I realize how much I love this sound. It is comforting to me to think that, in this crazy, fast-paced world, there are some things that never change. Then I notice the color of the water, which is both clear and turquoise at the same time, and wonder how it can be two colors at once.
After examining the water, I say a prayer of thanks that I can be here in this paradise. Then I go back to my place on the sand and either sit in the chair or lie down on my towel, close my eyes, and fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean.
If I choose instead to go to my Redwood forest, I walk up the hill from the elevator to an old oak tree with a hollowed-out section near the bottom, a section that houses my blanket and pillow. I take them out and proceed up to the forest. When I enter, I feel that I am in a holy place. A deep reverence for these tall, straight giants washes over me. As I continue on, I notice how spongy the forest floor feels, covered, as it is, with Redwood bark and needles. I also notice the shafts of light coming through the trees, their rainbow colors reminding me of stained glass windows, and I realize that they are, in fact, the stained glass windows of this, my cathedral.
I finally arrive at my spot, which is a bench fashioned from a fallen Redwood tree. Behind the bench and serving as a back rest is a live Redwood. I lay my blanket and pillow onto the bench, walk over to one of the trees and put my arms around it, as far as they will go. Then I say a little prayer to the Universe – “Thank you for allowing me to be here on the earth at the same time and place as these graceful giants. I pray that I will be able to return again.”
After that, I walk back to my bench, sit down, wrap my blanket around me, lean back on the Redwood behind me, and fall asleep.
Why did I go into such detail when explaining my visualizations to you? I did this because I wanted to show you just how specific your visualization should be. It won’t be this specific in the beginning, but, as you practice, you will hone it, adding whatever sounds, smells and sights that make it come alive for you. This will be your visualization, one that speaks to you.
In her book Close to the Bone, psychiatrist Jean Shinoda Bolen says that stories we apply to ourselves “…get into the marrow of our bones to influence healing and recovery.” She adds, “When you visualize a metaphor , the physiology of the body responds.” But, she emphasizes, as I have, that these stories must come from you, must matter to you. Dr. Andrew Weil, in his book, 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, advises readers to use “emotionally charged images” when creating their visualizations because they will be much more effective than ones that don’t have visceral meaning for the individual. He says to note down any images that create in you a gut-level response and think about how you might employ them in a visualization. I have told you about my beach and forest, but you might be moved by a winter scene: you, in a cabin, bundled up in a blanket by the fire while silent snowflakes fall outside. Or, you might see yourself lying in a meadow, in the spring, amongst thousands of California Poppies or Texas Bluebonnets. (Since I suffer from hayfever, this would never be my fantasy, but it might be yours).
We’ve been talking about visualizations of beautiful places. I like to use these when I’m actually in the fear-inducing situation. Prior to my cancer surgery, for instance, I prepared my beach visualization, going through it twice a day for a week before the operation. Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of preparation. If you have prepared both your breathing exercises, and your visualizations, they will be right at your fingertips whenever you need them. These techniques actually feel like armor that is protecting you when you go through whatever valley of the shadow of death you are facing.
I’ve been talking about Imaginary Visualizations, but there is another kind of visualization you can prepare, as well. I call this the Factual Visualization. Before my surgery, I asked my doctor to explain, in detail, each step I would be going through that day. I took notes as he spoke so that I would be able to repeat what he said later to myself. Then I went home, sat quietly in my room, and imagined myself feeling fine as I went through each step, picturing the operating room, the nurses, the doctor, the smells, the sound of the machines, and anything else that completed the picture for me. I imagined myself on the operating table, calming myself with my mantras, breathing exercises, and peaceful visualizations.
I practiced this factual visualization, along with my imaginary one, and breathing exercises, all twice a day for a week before the surgery, and I can’t begin to tell you what a difference this preparation made! I explained in the beginning that I am a squeamish person, but I went through that surgery calmly, from the time I walked into the hospital before dawn, to the moment they wheeled me out at night.
Let me give you another example of a Factual Visualization. After my surgery, I went through a 6-week course of chemotherapy. The oncologist decided to administer the drugs through what is known as a portocath, a catheter that had been placed under the skin of my upper chest. For each treatment, the nurse had to jab a needle into the portocath, breaking the skin anew each time. From what I told you before about my fear of needles, you know that I did not enjoy this. So, when I visualized the procedure, I imagined myself walking into the treatment room and seeing the staff doing all the things they do to prepare for the injection. I imagined the metallic smell of the equipment as I sat down in the treatment chair. I felt myself being calm, even joking with the nurse and remaining calm as she prepared the injection. When she finally inserted the needle into the portocath, I imagined noticing how it didn’t really hurt that much and that the prick only lasted for an instant. I visualized this scenario over and over again for the week before each visit, until I was able to feel relaxed throughout the entire procedure.
So, to recap, in facing a fearful situation, I use two different kinds of visualizations: a factual one to help me prepare for the event and a imaginary one to use during the event. You might do things differently, but make sure that you prepare visualizations for yourself. The right kinds of imagery can actually tell our brains that we are calm and in control of any difficult situation we are facing. Making visualizations part of your life is like building a strong place deep inside your soul where you can go to experience perfect peace.