The human imagination is powerful. It allows us to learn without direct experience. It allows us to create and innovate. It entertains us, and gives us a safe escape from boredom or distress. In this last capacity, our imagination can be harnessed as a coping skill - a coping skill that can be done anytime, anywhere, with no special equipment. We call this skill imagery.
Just like imagination more generally, imagery has myriad applications and forms. However, I lump them into two main categories: self-soothing, and mastery.
Self-soothing imagery gives people a break from distressing real-life stimuli by temporarily replacing them with images that are relaxing, peaceful, calm, or otherwise preferable to the current situation. Most often, soothing imagery reflects one of three themes: nature (lakes, mountains, meadows, sea, sky, rain, wind, trees, plants, animals); places associated with positive memories (a childhood home, bed, porch, vacation spot, etc.); and images associated with positive attachment figures (e.g., parent, grandparent, partner, close friend). What kind of image people select depends on their personal circumstances (e.g., someone without positive attachments is more likely to choose images that do not include other people), the kind of distress and its trigger, and what images are easily accessible based on life experience, geography, etc.
Self-soothing imagery works by settling people down (mind and body) so that they can return to their current situations in a better frame of mind, better able to cope and respond rather than react.
Self-soothing imagery increases effective coping indirectly, by quieting the distress that gets in the way of rational thinking and action. In contrast, mastery-based imagery seeks to increase coping more directly, by identifying and strengthening the responses most likely to lead to a desired outcome.
One common use of mastery-based imagery is in sports, when athletes visualize themselves performing flawlessly. The same idea applies to more routine life stressors: if people can identify a situation and their desired outcome, using imagery to picture that outcome unfolding (as it occurs, not only picturing the end result), primes people to actually act in ways that move them toward the desired outcome. When people are unsure of the most effective response, this kind of visualization also offers the opportunity to try out or rehearse various scenarios, helping people choose the best approach and fine-tune their response plan.
A specific application of master-based imagery is imaginal exposure, used as a therapeutic treatment for fear and anxiety. Drawing on effective treatments involving repeated exposure to feared stimuli to eliminate the fear response, researchers have established that simply imagining the feared stimuli can lead to reductions in fear and anxiety, and make it easier to face that stimuli in real life later on.
Whatever kind of imagery people choose, the most important aspect of the skill is to try visualizing the chosen image in as much detail as possible, drawing on as many of the 5 senses as possible. Include not only what the image looks like, but also what it sounds like, smells life, feels like, and tastes like. The more vivid the image, the more effective it will be.
What kind of imagery have you tried or used for yourself or clients?