A favorite film trope of mine is the taxi driver who keeps a postcard of a tropical beach resort taped to his sun visor. After a stressful fare, he takes a long look at the image, closes his eyes, and imagines that he is actually there: stretched out in the sun with a cold drink in hand, listening to the lapping waves. Then a new fare jumps in the cab and he opens his eyes, relieved of his stress and ready to continue driving.
Everyone has their own way to immediately relieve themselves of stress, whether it is spending a moment in a cherished memory or picturing a fluffy cloud passing across deep blue sky. What is it about this act of imagining that calms us down? Why does remembering Mom tucking me in as a child help me relax, even as a stressful situation rages all around?
It turns out that by engaging with our imaginations, either through guided visualization or just self-directed imagery, we are actually exploiting a strange quirk in human biology.
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Many studies since the 1980s have found that imagining a sensory experience activates the same neural pathways and central nervous system structures that would activate if we had actually used those senses. If we imagine a smell, our brain structures associated with smell will activate; if we imagine ourselves running or throwing a basketball, our motor cortex will light up instead.
Indeed, researchers have found that the only difference between imagining and experiencing is the degree to which these neural pathways are activated: enough to simulate the sensation in the mind, but not enough to make us move our legs or jerk out our arm. A guided visualization is just this kind of visualization guided by a narrator.
What happens when we engage in guided visualization is that by imagining calming situations we can actually produce effects in our bodies as though we had experienced those relaxing situations, which is why guided visualization is a successful meditative practice for helping us eliminate stress. The cab driver seen so often in films is not just calmed by the thought that some day he will be laying on a beach, but rather he is actually experiencing the effects of the warmth of the sun and the lapping of the waves.
A major component of anxiety and other stress-related disorders is the presence of invasive, repetitive, unproductive thoughts which contribute to an increase in stress levels. Sometimes called “ruminative thoughts” or just “rumination,” these recurring and stressful thoughts serve as a kind of feedback loop in our minds: the more we think about them, the more anxious we get, and the more anxious we get, the more we focus on them.
One benefit of guided visualization, in terms of stress reduction, is that the mental process of imagining oneself in a relaxing environment takes up mental space. To focus one’s energy on breathing deeply and feeling the warmth of an imaginary sun or the smell of salt on the beach actually serves to block ruminative thoughts from entering one’s mind, thereby breaking the cycle of anxiety.
That guided visualization takes up mental space that can harbor anxiety is why it is such a useful meditative practice. It can be difficult to meditate when your mind continually wanders to your different worries, fears, and anxieties, but guided visualization can help calm your mind as a warm-up to or as a part of a mindfulness meditation session.
These benefits of guided visualization are a major reason why Mesmerize offers dozens of guided visualization narrations to listen to while meditating. However, as being science-based is important to us, our narrators use scripts based on real clinical hypnosis interventions that are proven to work by peer-reviewed study.
Whether you are feeling anxious or just cannot seem to keep focused while meditating, consider giving Mesmerize a try.
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