Eight visualization techniques for stress reduction

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated January 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many sources have found that visualization works and can often be used to reduce stress, cope with mental health challenges, and increase your performance at work or school. If you're interested in learning how to use visualization to your advantage, learning how to use visualization techniques for stress can be beneficial. 

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The challenges of everyday life can create toxic stress

Eight visualization techniques for stress 

Visualization techniques are used in psychotherapy in various modalities, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and memory regression. Research has established that visualization techniques can also successfully treat stress, anxiety, and depression.

For example, one 1995 study tested the anxiety and depression levels of 60 subjects before and after using visualization techniques. All the subjects showed vast improvement in stress reduction, lower anxiety, and decreased depression symptoms after several sessions.

The following visualization techniques have been used successfully in reducing or eliminating stress. Setting aside time each day to practice these techniques may allow you to use them more freely whenever a situation becomes stressful.

1. Creative visualization of the favorable outcome

Creative visualization involves visualizing a favorable resolution to a stressful situation. To begin, sit comfortably in a peaceful place, then follow the following steps:

  1. Close your eyes and take deep breaths. 
  2. Try to clear your mind and create a blank canvas. 
  3. Imagine that the issue causing your stress has been entirely resolved. It may not be important how it was resolved, as the point isn't to focus on solutions but to visualize how you will feel once the situation resolves itself.
  4. Visualize as much detail as possible. What are you wearing? What are you saying? To whom are you speaking? What room are you in, and what is in your environment? Locate objects in the visualized environment that are tangible and that you can touch or feel in your mind to strengthen the visualization.
Many people find that creative visualization reduces stress and allows solutions to come to the forefront of their minds. When visualizing resolution, the solution may come to you, lowering or eliminating your stress about the situation.

2. Visualization as a diversion from stress

When stressed, you may visualize a peaceful scene as a temporary escape. Visualize the scene as you wish, whether it's a beautiful sunrise or sunset, a deserted beach, a field of flowers, a wooded trail, or a room full of kittens. Think about what relaxes you and then visualize yourself there.

It may be helpful to begin the exercise by sitting comfortably in a quiet place. Create a blank canvas in your mind and take several deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Consider what scenario would make you the most relaxed and begin building the imagery in your mind.

Visualize the details of your scenario and ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What colors are in the sunset? 
  • Is the sun or moon shining on the water? 
  • What do you hear? 
  • If you're playing with animals, what type of animal and what does it look like?
  • What does it feel like to touch an object in your environment? 

The more detail you can build into your visualization, the more effective the technique may be in offering you a peaceful moment away from stress.

3. Visualization with deep breathing

Combining visualization with deep breathing can be a powerful way to reduce stress and relax the body. Research shows a significant mind-body connection, which can explain why practicing deep breathing to calm the nervous system can also reduce stress and incite more positive emotions. 

For this visualization technique, lie down in a comfortable place if you are able. Begin breathing deeply, focusing on your breath. Then, become fully aware of your body, beginning with your toes and slowly traveling to the crown of your head. Focus on each of your five senses as you breathe. 

Next, visualize the stress leaving your body in waves with each breath. The more detail you put into the visualization, the better it may work. When visualizing the waves of stress leaving, ask yourself their color and how they look in your mind's eye. You can also imagine pain or difficult emotions leaving your body in whatever way they appear. Some people might see the stress as sticky oil, while others might see it as a net or flames. No matter how you see your stress, try to focus on it being compelled away from you with every breath out. 

4. Guided imagery

Guided imagery is a visualization technique frequently used in psychotherapy. It is an effective method to combat cognitive and emotional stress, reduce heart rate, and increase coherence. It can also be used from the comfort of your home or anywhere you have an internet connection.

In this technique, a recording guides the individual through the visualization. Many guided imagery visualization exercises start with a blank canvas and work slowly to build and add detail to the imagery.

You can find guided imagery recordings online, through websites, YouTube, and other media channels. You can also buy guided imagery CDs or audio recordings to download to your device. Some devices have apps for guided meditation or mindfulness practice, as well.

5. Happy memory visualization

Another visualization technique for combating stress is recalling a happy memory. For some, separating happy memories from past trauma or painful experiences can be difficult. In cases like this, it may be most beneficial to consult your therapist for advice before practicing visualization techniques for stress reduction. 

Before recalling a happy memory, settle into a comfortable position while sitting or lying down. Close your eyes and create a blank canvas in your mind. When recalling the memory, try to visualize every detail as you remember it. If you don't remember a specific detail, fill it in with whatever comes to mind. What were you wearing? Who were you with? What was said? What was the environment like? Picture the room or location of the memory and each detail. Consider what you can see, touch, smell, hear, or taste.

Once the image is complete in your mind, spend a few minutes there to enjoy the memory before ending the visualization. 

6. Visualization with the senses

For this exercise, think of a relaxing, peaceful, familiar place. It might be a beach or a particular nature park you frequent. Sit comfortably and create a visualization of that place. Feel the breeze in your hair or the sun on your face. Hear the birds chirping in the distance. Smell the grass or the ocean. See the way the waves lap at the beach. Taste the ocean spray.

The idea of this practice is to create a visualization strong enough to find at least one area that satisfies each of your five senses. Exploring all five senses may bring you to a relaxed and grounded state, feeling more prepared to face stress.

7. Healing light visualization

The healing light visualization technique might be beneficial when stress is compounded by pain, such as a headache. In this technique, you can begin by clearing your mind and breathing deeply while becoming fully aware of your body.

Once fully relaxed, visualize a healing light descending and touching your body where you feel pain. Then visualize the pain leaving your body through waves or different colored light. You might also imagine yourself in a floating bubble, surrounded by white or gold light that feels calming and comfortable. 

8. Visualization for self-motivation

Many people find stress so overwhelming that it can be debilitating. If this is the case for you, a self-motivation visualization technique might be valuable.  

To begin, sit comfortably, close your eyes, and create a clear canvas in your mind. Afterward, visualize yourself completing the task you feel aversion toward. Create the imagery of the room that you are in and visualize yourself completing the task while asking yourself the following questions: 

  • What is around you? 
  • Who is in this scenario? 
  • What colors do you see? 
  • What are you wearing? 
  • What are you saying? 
  • What can you hear?

Focus on your feelings and imagine the stress leaving your body as you complete the task. Visualize the completion of the task and imagine how that feels. Visualize how you will be rewarded for doing the task by yourself or someone else.

The challenges of everyday life can create toxic stress

Counseling options 

Many types of visualization techniques can be used to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. If you have difficulty with visualizations, or if the visualizations are not enough to combat your stress on your own, speaking to a therapist may also be beneficial. Some people struggle with aphantasia, which is a term to describe being unable to visualize images or ideas in the mind. In these cases, a therapist may help you find alternative forms of meditation or mindfulness to cope with stress.  

Some people experiencing stress avoid therapy because they feel that it's inconvenient, time-consuming, or contributes to their stress levels. Online therapy is a standard solution for these barriers to treatment. Connecting with a counselor through a platform like BetterHelp can allow you to receive support from the comfort of your own home. 

One literature review has established that online counseling has an impact similar to traditional counseling. Once matched with a licensed mental health professional, you may have various options to keep in touch, including phone, video chat, or live messaging with your therapist. In addition, you can choose a session time that works for your schedule. 

Takeaway

Stress can be difficult to cope with. However, there are many visualization techniques developed to help individuals move forward. If you're still experiencing stress after trying multiple visualization exercises, consider contacting a licensed therapist or counselor for further guidance and a personalized treatment plan.

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