Using Visualization to Reduce Anxiety Symptoms

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If you regularly experience symptoms of anxiety, then you know how disruptive they can be to your everyday life.

Visualization is a popular relaxation technique that involves using your imagination to experience a desired feeling such as peacefulness, confidence, or motivation. Visualization can also help reduce feelings of nervousness.

By enhancing your relaxation skills with visualization, you can lower your flight-or-fight response that is often triggered during times of increased anxiety.

What Is Visualization?

Visualization is a powerful technique that can help relieve the symptoms of anxiety. The technique involves using mental imagery to achieve a more relaxed state of mind. Similar to daydreaming, visualization is accomplished through the use of your imagination. There are some people who are unable to picture images in their minds. This is known as aphantasia.

There are several reasons why visualization can help you cope with anxiety. Consider how your thoughts wander when you feel anxious. Your mind may focus on the worry, the worst things that can happen, and other cognitive distortions that only add to your sense of fearfulness.

Visualization works to expand your ability to rest and relax by focusing your mind on more calming and serene images.

Before beginning any of these visualization exercises, make sure your environment is set up for your comfort. To better relax, eliminate any distractions, such as phones, pets, or television. Try to find a quiet place where you will most likely be undisturbed.

Remove any heavy jewelry or restricting clothing, such as tight belts or scarves. Get ready to relax by either sitting or lying down in a position that feels comfortable to you.

To begin, it can be helpful to slow your breathing down with a deep-breathing technique. Close your eyes and try to let go of any tension you may be feeling throughout your body. To relax your body and mind even further, it may also be beneficial to try a progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) exercise before you begin visualization. Try to set aside about five to 15 minutes to visualize.

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Types of Visualization

There are limitless ways to practice visualization. What you choose to picture in your mind is totally up to you, but the following are some common types of visualization.

Guided Imagery

The following is a beach scene visualization exercise that you can practice on your own. Beach scenes are a popular visualization due to their calming and tranquil impact. Feel free to get creative and change it to better suit your needs and imagination. Use guided visualizations like this one to relax, unwind and briefly escape from your day-to-day tasks.

Visualization Exercise: White Sandy Beach

Imagine that you are resting on a white sandy beach and feel safe, calm, and relaxed as you think about the following:

  • Turquoise water and a clear, blue sky
  • The sound of soft waves as the tide gently rolls in
  • The weight of your body sinking into your beach chair
  • The warmth of the sand on your feet
  • A large umbrella keeping you slightly shaded, creating just the right temperature

Relax your face and let go of any tension in your forehead, between your eyebrows, your neck, and your throat. Soften your eyes and rest. Allow your breath to slow down and match the rolling waves of the water. It is effortless to be here; spend time just taking it all in.

Once this relaxation feels complete, imagine that you get up and slowly walk away from the beach. Remember that this beautiful place is here for you whenever you need to come back. Take your time and slowly open your eyes.

If the beach scene doesn’t really fit you, try coming up with your own visualization. Think of a place or situation that you find to be very relaxing, such as lying down in a large field of flowers and grass, or enjoying a beautiful view of a mountain or forest.

Visualizing a Goal

Another type of visualization is where you picture yourself achieving your goals. For instance, some athletes use visualization to improve their performance.

They might picture themselves feeling energetic on game day, walking out onto the field, and scoring a goal. Research shows that this type of visualization can help improve performance under pressure. But you don't have to be an athlete to practice this type of visualization.

If you're coping with symptoms of anxiety, you might visualize what it would feel like to be anxiety-free, or what positive feelings you're hoping to embody as you release tension and stress.

Say you have social anxiety. You're nervous about attending a birthday gathering for a friend because of how many people will be there, but you really want to go. You might visualize yourself going to the party, having fun, talking to people, and really enjoying yourself.

During your visualization, you might observe:

  • What it feels like to have less anxiety in social settings
  • How your mind is less focused on worrying
  • How your body feels more relaxed and at ease

When the time comes to actually attend the party in real life, you might find it less anxiety-inducing simply because you've already visualized it going well. Visualizing positive mental representations of yourself can help improve symptoms of anxiety and boost your own self-image as well.

Compassion Meditation

Visualization is also a key component of other practices like compassion meditation. This type of meditation can help boost your mood and promote feelings of well-being. It's also a great way to show yourself greater self-love and self-compassion as you cope with anxiety.

To practice compassion meditation, find a quiet place to sit or lie down. Focus your attention inward or visualize yourself. Repeat a mantra such as "I am worthy of love and understanding."

You can practice compassion meditation to show yourself support when you're experiencing high levels of anxiety.

You might also choose to visualize a person or a situation that is bringing you any anxiety or stress. Visualizing someone you've had a disagreement with, for example, can help you foster greater understanding for them and release some of your anger or tension. Repeat a mantra such as "May this person feel peace and understanding," or "May I find peace in this situation."

Use Your Creativity

When visualizing your calming scene, think about what you are experiencing through all of your senses. Notice what you hear, smell, taste and how your body feels. When you feel ready to leave your relaxation scene, take your time and gradually return your mind to the present.

To get better at visualization, try practicing several times a day. Relaxation techniques tend to be more helpful if you first start practicing at a time when you are not experiencing high anxiety. Through regular practice, you will be able to use visualization when you really need it, such as when you start feeling the physical symptoms of anxiety or panic.

A Word From Verywell

Visualization is a great technique you can practice whenever you feel anxiety. If you're new to visualization, it may take some time to get used to it, so try to be patient. If you find visualization isn't helping your anxiety symptoms, you can also try other common relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation.

If you find you are struggling with anxiety symptoms, be sure to talk to a primary care doctor or a mental health professional such as a therapist who can help you find the best ways for you to cope.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Di Corrado D, Guarnera M, Guerrera CS, et al. Mental imagery skills in competitive young athletes and non-athletes. Front Psychol. 2020;11. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00633

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Additional Reading
  • Seaward, B. L. Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Wellbeing, 7th Edition, 2011.

By Katharina Star, PhD
Katharina Star, PhD, is an expert on anxiety and panic disorder. Dr. Star is a professional counselor, and she is trained in creative art therapies and mindfulness.