How does Visual Imagery work?

The therapeutic use of visual imagery involves creating vivid mental images of something, whether an actual past experience (like your 21st birthday) or making up something that has not actually happened (like giving a speech at an upcoming meeting, or imaging how it would have been to be able to tell a loved one how much they meant to you before they passed away).

Visual imagery is one of the most powerful therapeutic tools in my bag and I have found it to be immensely cathartic and helpful for clients and myself. The human brain is unable to accurately differentiate between vivid imagination and a real experience. This is how fears work. Most, if not all the things we are terrified of have not actually happened to us and most likely never will. However, when we imagine or visualize it, we experience the fear and adrenaline kicking in as if we were actually living through the horrid experience and our body and mind go through this simulation. This is why horror movies manage to scare us even though we are fully aware that it’s just a movie and is not “real”.

A similar impact is felt when we reminisce about past experiences – we can end up laughing over something that happened years ago and can also feel the anger of an old wound, even though it is no longer a part of our current reality or experience. Many of the therapeutic modalities I use – like hypnotherapy, regression, inner child work, schema therapy, and others – utilise this natural confusion tendency of our mind to create healing experiences, work through negative or traumatic past memories and create uplifting images/expectations of the future. For e.g., even while the client is fully aware that he/she is only ‘imagining’ getting closure or ‘imagining’ feeling super confident and relaxed at an upcoming meeting – the brain experiences this as real, creates similar feelings and sensations for us and in essence lives through this imagined reality.

Athletes utilize this ‘positive visualization’ as part of their sports training. As they repeatedly imagine doing well and being successful/winning, the brain thinks that they have actually won those many times – and as they say, practice makes perfect –it’s no longer a new or unfamiliar situation, in your head, you’ve already done this a million times! This is not to say that imagination without the necessary action will yield real-life success. Often the real demons we fight are in our minds in the form of horror stories we make up and tell ourselves repeatedly even though it’s the last thing we want. So this can help you be in the right frame of mind, complete unfinished business, let go past baggage, resolve internal conflict and set yourself up for success.

Our imagination is potent, magical, and powerful. It’s up to us whether we use this power for good or evil, as a boon or bane. By being mindful of and consciously choosing which mental stories we create and focus on, we can use our imagination as our biggest ally instead of our enemy.

Written by:
Mahima Gupta                                                                                            Clinical Psychologist                                                                                  SACAC Counselling

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