The sensation of dread and impending doom creeps through your body; you feel your heart rate elevating, breath shortening, and sweat trickling down your forehead as you fear the worst is about to happen… Sound familiar?
That feeling of anxiety is an inevitable part of life; as unpleasant as it can be, we all experience it from time to time, and it can often be triggered by a number of unavoidable situations in our daily lives.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting around 40 million adults every year, and while anxiety is highly treatable, only 36.9 of sufferers seek appropriate treatment .
But if that feeling of dread has become a habitual part of your daily routine, it can take a severe toll on your mental and physical health in the long term, and you need to take proactive measures to help ease your anxiety.
Guided imagery meditation is a cost-effective and easily-accessible way to eliminate disruptive thoughts and feelings of nervousness to effectively restore your sense of calm and inner peace.
Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of guided imagery therapy, practical examples, and how to use them as a relief technique whenever you need it most.
Guided imagery meditation is a method to help manage your anxiety by using different visualization techniques to evoke a sense of calmness and relaxation in the mind and body.
Typically, whenever we are faced with a stressful or anxiety-inducing scenario, we switch to a stress-based response called ‘fight-or-flight’, which involves physical reactions such as heart palpitations, muscle aches and tension, trembling, and a dry mouth. Mental manifestations of this response include jitteriness, nervousness, tension, a lack of focus, and a feeling of panic or doom.
Guided imagery aims to banish such unpleasant feelings by training the mind to intentionally focus on positive visualizations in the form of anxiety-calming images, sounds and experiences. The idea behind this technique is that when the mind is calm, the relaxing sensation will soon flow through to the body.
The great thing about using visual meditation for anxiety is that the benefits remain even after your meditation session has ended, helping to carry you calmly through your day, better manage stressful situations, and reduce the physical and mental effects of anxiety.
Some of these advantages include the following:
Throughout the years, extensive research has confirmed the benefits of guided imagery in reducing anxiety, stress and other psychological disorders.
The most recent evidence includes a 2022 study assessing a group of participants who experienced diminished mental health following the Covid-19 pandemic. After just four therapy sessions, results showed a significant improvement in participants’ anxiety levels and overall psychological well-being.
Moreover, two separate 2018 studies found that guided imagery reduced pre-surgery anxiety in patients and pre-test anxiety in students  , making it a viable treatment option for various causes of anxiety.
Most people’s guided visualization involves them mentally checking out to a tropical beach with the warm feel of the sun and the soothing sound of the ocean waves lapping the shore. While nature-based imagery helps people feel less anxious, there are no hard and fast rules about where your mind wanders.
Let your imagination carry you away to any scene that feels relaxing to you, whether it's sitting in front of a cozy crackling log fire on a cold winter’s night, or floating on a soft, fluffy white cloud drifting into a sunny sky. The key is to engage all your senses as you picture the sights, sounds, smells and sensations of your relaxing place of choice.
Another form of visualization involves picturing the best possible outcome of an upcoming situation in your mind before you experience it in real life.
It’s all too easy to fall into a pattern of spiralling negative thoughts as the expectations and pressure to do well in a given scenario reach a high.
But through mindfulness, you train your mind to replace such defeatist thinking with a visualization of the positive end result you desire. This process helps promote a calm state, resulting from your body reacting in accordance with your thoughts.
For example, an athlete suffering from performance anxiety could visualize winning a competition and experiencing feelings of triumph and fulfilment rather than anxiety.
But you don’t have to be an athlete to reap the benefits of the technique. Apply it to any setting relevant to your life, whether it’s attending a friend’s birthday party full of people you don’t know or delivering a presentation to a room full of your work colleagues.
In fact, a 2017 study found that visualizing an outcome before it occurs can help improve performance under pressure . Additionally, a 2020 study by Korea University found that rehearsing positive end results in your mind can not only improve symptoms of anxiety but also boost confidence and self-image .
Set aside around five to fifteen minutes for your guided imagery meditation at a time when you know you’re not likely to be interrupted. Before you begin your session, ensure your environment is optimized for comfort to reap the full benefits.
This includes finding a quiet, relaxing place, eliminating any noise and distractions, and removing any heavy jewellery or tight and restrictive clothing.
Guided imagery and visualization techniques take practice. To get better, it’s recommended to give these methods a try several times a day when your anxiety levels are relatively low. The more you practice, the better you’ll be able to use visualization impromptu in times of high anxiety or panic.
If you have any medical conditions, always consult your doctor before giving any relaxation training exercise a go to ensure it’s safe for you.
Follow these simple step-by-step instructions to help you briefly escape the daily stresses of life and experience relief from your anxiety.
If an upcoming event is causing you undue anxiety, whether in a personal, professional, or social setting, then visualizing yourself achieving your desired goal can help dissipate any anxiety you’re associating with the situation.
For example, let’s say you’re extremely worried and nervous about delivering an important presentation at work to a boardroom of senior staff members. Following the same first four steps from the above exercise, you can use the visualization technique below to effectively improve your performance:
If you’re new to guided imagery and visual meditation, there are several helpful tips to help you relax, concentrate, and ease into the practice:
As you try to redirect your thoughts to calm your mind, phones and other electronic devices can be a huge distraction, making it challenging to focus inwards. Switch off phones, televisions, computers and all other electronics. If you’re using an audio or visual on your phone to help with your session, set it to ‘do not disturb’ mode.
Doing yoga before your meditation session can help release energy in the body, making it easy for the mind to relax, as well as improving flexibility and resiliency, allowing you to sit comfortably for longer and deepening your meditative practice.
Progressive muscle relaxation is another way to bring about a relaxation response by causing the body to shift from an alert and reactive state to a more restful and relaxed one. The process involves slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group as you work through the body, noticing the contrasting feeling of relaxation.
Diaphragmatic breathing increases blood flow to your brain, allowing for increased focus and greater clarity of thoughts. The practice consists of deep abdominal breathing exercises for enhanced posture, greater relaxation and better intention, all of which maximize the beneficial effects of your meditation practice.
Simply place your hand on your stomach and gently breathe through your nose as much as possible. Hold your breath for a few moments as you feel the air moving through your abdomen, stretching your stomach and waist. Then slowly exhale through pursed lips as you feel your stomach gradually contracting.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Breath Research is one of many to confirm the extensive benefits of deep, slow and controlled breathing in triggering a relaxation response in the body and bringing about positive changes to our mental and physical health .
Apps like Bliss and Resonate effectively guide you to practice this type of resonance breathing by combining beautiful visuals with relaxing audio to enter a deep state of inner calm. Based on extensive research, the app harnesses the power of breathing to induce super-deep meditation, regulate emotions, and reduce anxiety and stress, among other things.
A guided imagery script can make it easier to visualize your ‘happy place’ and enter a calm state. These scripts provide a narrative for your mind to relax, using imagery as guidance to help you meditate. You can find plenty of guided imagery scripts on the internet or even write one yourself if you prefer.
Some people may find that reading a script while visualizing diverts their focus and ability to relax. In such cases, playing an audio recording of your chosen script while you close your eyes can be more effective in helping you to focus and relax. There is the option to record your own audio script, or perhaps you may prefer using a pre-recorded version from various online platforms.
The profound benefits of consistent meditation on improving psychological well-being are well-known. A 2014 review published in the JAMA Internal Medicine Journal, involving data on over 3,500 patients, found that meditation programs over an eight-week period significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression .
Mesmerize is an app that uniquely combines engaging visuals with soothing psycho-acoustic music and expertly-crafted guided meditations to bring you an all-inclusive meditation experience. Users can benefit from clinically-validated techniques that ease the body into a state of deep relaxation to lower anxiety, overcome stress, increase focus, and much more.
Suppose audio scripts alone aren’t enough to stimulate your imagination and prepare your mind for meditation. In that case, you can go one step further by looking at images or videos of peaceful settings to get you in the right frame of mind while you meditate.
Soothing visuals are especially helpful if you’re in the beginning stages of building your guided imagery practice, and a great place to start is with the Gardzen AR Mediation App. The app is cleverly-designed with an immersive augmented-reality meditation experience to help clear your mind and relax.
Gardzen AR allows you to populate your meditation space with objects of nature commonly found in zen gardens, such as ponds, plants, and water fountains, paired with spatial 3D sounds of nature, including chirping birds and gentle wind, providing a realistic experience that mimics the natural world.
Meditative journals can help you stay motivated to stay consistent with the practice and provide a unique insight into its effects on your overall quality of life and the best ways to continue.
By using a journal to record how you feel before and after a guided imagery session, you’ll be able to track your anxiety and stress levels over time and assess whether they have improved in the long term.
You can also use this journal to note down any disruptive thoughts that keep you from quietening your mind. You’ll be surprised how simply writing your thoughts down can alleviate your anxiety and make it easier to let those thoughts go.
Although guided imagery and visualization both share a common goal of helping people feel less stressed and anxious, there is a key difference between the two practices. Visualization involves a person focusing purely on visuals in the mind to achieve a positive change or outcome in difficult situations, while guided imagery requires a person to virtually transport themselves to a relaxing place, engaging all of the senses to completely immerse themselves into their scene of choice.
Guided imagery and visualization techniques utilize the power of imagination to produce positive effects on the body. This clever trick works because our bodies can’t tell the difference between a real experience and one that is imagined. When we perceive an image in the mind, the same areas of the brain light up as if the event was actually occurring. So, if you imagine a relaxing scene in your mind, your body will naturally follow suit and begin to relax.
Anyone who experiences stress or anxiety in one way or another can benefit from guided imagery and visualization (that pretty much covers everybody). It’s essential to allow yourself time to relax your body and calm your mind to help manage your stress and anxiety effectively. However, if you suffer from any mental health conditions, always consult your doctor before giving guided imagery or visualization a go.