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Overcoming health challenges: Effectively using mental imagery this year



Gosh, it’s a new year. I have to say I have entered it in a funk and in a daze. I had COVID in the first week after a pretty exhausting Christmas period and it’s meant that nothing feels organised or clear in my mind, which is causing a lot of unease. This whole protracted period has got me reflective on the impact of illness and burnout on our ability to see where we’re going.


The Power of a Vision in Times of Health Crisis

Having a vision gets you places. I’m not talking in the airy-fairy, wellness realms of manifest your destiny through a series of semi-superstitious rituals. I’m talking about the well-evidenced fact that if you have a strong direct intention and clear vision, you are more likely to get there (and surpass it) than if you don’t. This effect is magnified if you can visualise those outcomes. When reviewing the evidence I was honestly blown away at how powerful mental imagery is. From college students envisaging their day-to-day chores and feeling more accomplished, doing more and feeling better about themselves, to tennis players performing much better after completing imagery exercises compared to other pre-performance strategies, all the way to people recovering from muscular injuries and experiencing immobilisation. This perhaps was the most mind-blowing finding. This study showed that people using mental imagery to imagine lifting heavy objects had muscle strength increases of up to 136%! You read that right.

It's beyond the scope of this post to go into the mechanisms but I promise you I’ll explore that in future content. However, what has to be said is that mental imagery works by creating physiological changes in the body across various networks in the brain. In the context of healing injuries, these brain network changes communicate with the peripheral nervous system to create change in body processes, ability, and sensation.


Challenges of Imagery During Difficult Times

When things are so hard you can’t imagine them getting better… The difficulty, of course, is that when you are in a hard place, experiencing symptoms, your mood is low, there are 101 stressors, it is almost impossible for your brain to conjure those images spontaneously – let alone without any enthusiasm. It’s like going to the supermarket when you aren’t hungry, have no inclination to cook, and have many other things that seem more pressing of your time. Trying to work out what delicious nutritious meals are far beyond you.

When I was on my third day of being couch-bound, hot and then cold, feeling bored of all entertainment, incapable of using my brain, bored but also agitated, I kept checking in with myself to say “hey, this will pass – just let yourself be ill and rest”. The difficulty was I was aware of a number of things I’m finding hard in life at the moment and I had hoped that I could kick off this new year positively and patiently addressing them. That seemed hard enough to begin with. But now, the problems felt like they were stacking up and I felt even less able to deal with them. The sentiment swirling unarticulated in my mind but nonetheless very present and threatening: “you won’t be able to sort it out and everything will fall apart”.

What a disempowering place to be.

The feelings were so strong. The sentiment so forceful, my mood was dark. My anxiety high. And I generally don’t get anxious. Life difficulties aside, the thing that was really catalysing all of this was my body being depleted by COVID. And I had a good sense that the virus would pass (lucky for me as not everyone does have that assurance). I had many safety nets that things wouldn’t fall apart. Nonetheless, all of this piled on top.


Using Imagery to Find Hope

What happens when you practice imagery from a dark hole of despair? I kept trying to use imagery to get back to the bigger picture. To make me feel more hopeful. To connect me to my values. To gain some perspective. You know what kept happening?

The beautiful imagery I was creating was being interrupted with “yes but how?” and “that doesn’t seem very likely because x, y, z” and more “yes but HOW?”

This experience is something I’ve talked lots about in my career with patients when making therapy goals. Often at the outset, people are fixated on what they don’t want and it’s hard for them to identify what they want in the absence of that thing/s instead. This is really understandable, especially when suffering for a long while. There are specific things that also make it hard to connect with what you may like to have, which resemble my experience:


  • Getting lost in the details of how – this is a sure-fire blocker to creating the vision because there are too many hurdles before you can even get into it.


  • Feeling fearful to imagine in case you get so attached to the idea that it hurts even more that you’re not there already.


  • Feeling fearful to imagine in case you tempt fate and fate is vengeful and decides you’re asking too much, so doesn’t let you have it… (this is a type of magical thinking that upon closer enquiry often moves the goal posts. If you hope for the best you’re tempting bad things but if you expect the worst, you are making that reality happen – no winning!)


Setting Your Guiding Star

Here’s the thing. If you buy into the importance of hope and having a positive vision for your future in your healing and life goals, then it is just a matter of categorising tasks. When you are trying to create that vision you are setting your guiding star. You’re throwing your flare out ahead of you to get a gist of where the light is coming from. When you do that, you’re not throwing the flare to illuminate every nook and cranny, every twist and turn on the route to it. That is a different category of task. We can call that “road mapping”.

Road mapping allows you to pull out all the problems, pull out all the information, assemble the resources, create ideas of timelines, progress measures, all that good stuff. But road mapping has no place in setting your guiding star. Separating out the two tasks is hard but important. When you are doing it in real-time, you’re also teaching your brain and nervous system safety that it probably hasn’t felt in a long while. The future may have been associated with fear and misfortune for a long while. In coming back to guiding star generation, you are making a new powerful alternative association that will serve you when you’re road-mapping and navigating the journey.


Starting Your Visionary Journey

Start now. This is a foundational building block for all else. And it’s actually a really enjoyable and mood-transforming practice once you build the skill. If you’d like to start creating your own guiding star, here are some starting prompts:


  • Assemble images – actual images that communicate your hope for the future. In other words, a visualisation board. Don’t worry about being too literal and specific. If you want food freedom, maybe you have pictures of lovely restaurants or dinner party spreads. If you want to be able to travel without worrying about where the bathroom is, maybe you have shots of remote locations you’d love to visit, or quaint public toilets you wouldn’t be worried about using in the future.


  • Check in with your values – just assembling images can feel too broad to begin with. So check in with you and what is important to you. Completing a values exercise can be really important for this (booklet linked below). Across these valued dimensions, you can then pick ideas for images. For example, if it is important to you to be connected but currently you feel restricted to just managing work, maybe you have images of parties or board game nights (stock vague images can nicely set the scene).


  • Allow your mind to be open – you don’t need to rehearse a specific scene over and over. You just need to allow your brain to go towards that realm of possibility and populate it with tangibility, emotion, determination, a little bit more every time you visit. Sometimes it will feel super vivid, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes it will transport you and how you feel, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes it will help other things click in your mind, other times it won’t. Try and park the expectations of your visualisation each time you do it and just do it, frequent enough that it starts feeling like a place that you know.


Body Mind Connect

In the coming weeks and months, we have so much more coming to Body Mind Connect, including much more on imagery, creating goals, gut regulation and bladder symptoms. In the meantime there are over 22 topics with a vast range of activities (over 100) already on there. The community is growing and Wednesday evenings are one of my favourite times of the week; being amongst engaged, supportive and warm people all motivated to nurture their mind and bodies.

 

You can find out more info and join here.



References

[1] Tabaei-Aghdaei, Z., McColl-Kennedy, J. R., & Coote, L. V. (2023). Goal setting and health-related outcomes in chronic diseases: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the literature from 2000 to 2020. Medical Care Research and Review, 80(2), 145-164.

 

[2] Burke, A., Shanahan, C., & Herlambang, E. (2014). An exploratory study comparing goal-oriented mental imagery with daily to-do lists: Supporting college student success. Current Psychology, 33, 20-34..

 

[3] Blankert, T., & Hamstra, M. R. (2017). Imagining success: Multiple achievement goals and the effectiveness of imagery. Basic and applied social psychology, 39(1), 60-67.

 

[4] Slimani, M., Tod, D., Chaabene, H., Miarka, B., & Chamari, K. (2016). Effects of mental imagery on muscular strength in healthy and patient participants: A systematic review. Journal of sports science & medicine, 15(3), 434.



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