Do you ever find yourself mentally visiting a serene beach or favorite vacation spot when things get stressful? Visiting your “happy place” can’t help you escape all your troubles, but it might provide temporary relief from stress and anxiety.
Even just imagining a peaceful setting is shown to convince the body and unconscious mind that you are in a safe, beautiful, and therefore relaxing environment. This practice is called visualization, and like other meditative exercises, it offers a distraction to redirect your attention from a stressor to something more peaceful. The goal is to learn how to cultivate a state of relaxed detachment where you can watch, but not become overwhelmed by, stressful thoughts and sensations that enter your mind. With time, quick thoughts of a peaceful setting can begin to act as a cue that brings about relaxing memories from your past visualization sessions.
Also called guided imagery, visualization can serve as another way to switch off the body’s fight-or-flight stress response. When something in our mind or environment causes feelings of stress, our sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) takes over. The result is an increased breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure, among other metabolic changes. When the sympathetic nervous system takes over, our immune function, digestion, and ability to concentrate also tend to decrease simultaneously. Visualization can help you switch to a relaxed state where your parasympathetic nervous system takes control. Here, your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure return to normal levels.
There isn’t one right way to practice visualization. What you envision and find relaxing will be unique to your perspective! Here’s a general guide to help you get started:
- Make yourself comfortable in a calm, quiet, and private space.
- Close your eyes and take a few deep, breaths into your diaphragm to center your attention.
- Think of a peaceful location where everything is exactly to your liking.
- Imagine yourself in this setting, feeling calm and relaxed or smiling and happy.
- Make it more realistic by focusing on different senses, like the feeling of waves crashing on your feet or the warm sun on your skin. The more you involve your senses; the more vivid the experience can become.
- Explore different aspects—sights, sounds, feelings, scents—of your setting for five-to-ten minutes or however long it takes to feel relaxed.
- Remind yourself you can return to this setting whenever you want to destress.
You can build onto visualization by adding a form of physical relaxation. For example, use it along with a massage or progressive muscle relaxation, where you breathe deeply and intentionally release tension in different parts of your body. Combining physical relaxation with peaceful imagery can help you get to a relaxed state even faster since your brain may start to associate the imagery with the physical sensations of relaxation.