How To Use Visualization Tools To Improve Your Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In the context of mental health and self-care, visualization often involves more than picturing an image in one’s mind. It encompasses a broad spectrum of imaginative exercises and mental practices. 

Visualization is often intertwined with emotion. Picturing yourself succeeding at a task may prepare you mentally and elicit pride, happiness, or relief. Conversely, visualizing a stressful event might cause anxiety to arise. Understanding visualization, the types you can practice, and how it affects mental health can help you use it effectively in therapeutic settings.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Explore visualization with professional support

What is visualization?

Visualization is the act of conjuring up mental images or scenarios. It may be similar to the concept of daydreaming but involves more intentionality. It allows a person to create, modify, and control images, scenes, or sequences in the mind. These images can be replicas of real-world events or abstract constructs limited by one’s imagination.

What is the cognitive basis of visualization?

Mental imagery refers to the mental representations of objects or events that aren’t physically present. It’s the same cognitive process used when recalling how your childhood home looked or imagining the face of a loved one.

When you visualize an action or scenario, the brain undergoes the same changes as when experiencing it in real life. Neural pathways activated during visualization resemble those used during the actual performance of the activity, which underscores its effectiveness as a rehearsal tool.

Is everyone able to use visualization?

People think of concepts in different ways. Some people may be able to visualize an item or scenario “visually” in their minds. Others may be unable to use their senses to image items or remember a situation. The inability to see images in the “mind’s eye” is known as aphantasia.

Visualization exercises might not work for you if you cannot visualize like others. However, you can use other forms of meditation, mindfulness, and grounding to connect with metaphorical ideas physically and in the present moment, such as sensory awareness practices. 

Types of visualization

Below are some of the most common types of visualization that may be used to remember information visually in the mind. 

Objective visualization 

Objective visualization involves seeing an object, person, or scenario from an outsider’s perspective, like watching a movie in your mind. For example, viewing yourself giving a presentation from an audience member’s viewpoint may be a visualization exercise. 

Subjective visualization 

Subjective visualization involves perceiving scenarios from a first-person perspective, placing yourself in the middle of the action. If you imagine the sensations of giving a presentation, like the weight of the microphone in your hand or the spotlight on your face, you’re using subjective visualization.

While visualization can mirror or alter perceptions of reality, the mind can sometimes blur the lines between the two. For this reason, visualization can be powerful for those who can complete it. For instance, repeatedly visualizing a negative outcome can instill unwarranted fear or pessimism, while positive visualizations can boost confidence or optimism. Recognizing this distinction ensures that visualization remains a tool under one’s control, rather than a runaway train of thought.

Benefits of visualization for mental health

Visualization serves as more than a tool for athletes and high performers. When channeled effectively, visualization can have several benefits on mental health. At its foundation, visualization involves using the power of the mind to create or recall images and scenarios. This cognitive exercise can influence emotions, behaviors, and physiological responses, making it an invaluable asset for mental well-being. Because of these benefits, researchers have started looking at the implications of visualization in many areas of life, including how individuals can teach and train their brains.

Visualization plays a pivotal role in emotional regulation. Individuals can counteract distress or anxiety by consciously guiding thoughts toward positive and calming images. For instance, someone plagued with anxious thoughts can visualize a serene beach, focusing on the rhythm of the waves, the warmth of the sand, and the gentle breeze. This exercise acts as a form of cognitive distraction, diverting the mind from a cycle of anxiety and channeling it toward a peaceful mental landscape. 

Visualization, especially combined with deep breathing exercises, can facilitate the relaxation response, reducing cortisol levels. Cortisol is one of the primary hormones involved in the stress response, so reducing its levels can level out the nervous system.


Common visualization techniques

Visualization offers a range of techniques tailored to diverse goals. These techniques leverage the brain’s capability to form, manipulate, and reflect on mental images, and each has its distinct applications and benefits. Below are a few techniques to keep in mind. 

Guided imagery

Guided imagery is like a directed daydream. It involves a narrator or facilitator guiding the listener through calming and restorative mental scenes. This process can be facilitated through audio recordings, one-on-one sessions, or group workshops.

  • Applications: Guided visualization may be used for stress relief, relaxation, and meditation. The vivid and detailed descriptions may immerse the listener in the imagery, promoting relaxation and a sense of well-being.
  • Practice: With the help of a guide or a recording, close your eyes and immerse yourself in detailed descriptions of places, events, or scenarios.

Progressive muscle relaxation and visualization

While primarily known as a relaxation method involving tensing and relaxing muscle groups, it can be combined with visualization for a more profound impact. As each muscle group is relaxed, one can visualize the tension melting away or being drawn out.

  • Applications: Progressive muscle relaxation paired with visualization may benefit those who carry physical tension or stress in their bodies or those looking to improve mind-body awareness.
  • Practice: Tense a muscle group while inhaling. As you exhale, release the tension and visualize it flowing out of your body.

Mental rehearsal

Commonly used by athletes, the mental rehearsal technique involves envisioning oneself performing a task, often to perfection. Rehearsing the desired outcome in the mind can make it easier to achieve. This exercise is similar to writing exercises, proven by research to increase the chances of success. For example, writing your goals on paper increases the chance of future financial and career success.

  • Applications: Mental rehearsal is often used to enhance performance in sports, arts, public speaking, exams, challenging conversations, and careers. 
  • Practice: Close your eyes and envision yourself succeeding at a particular task, noting every detail, and associating yourself with that success. If you struggle to visualize due to aphantasia, consider writing these goals on paper and examining them, focusing on guarding the visual image in your mind in the present moment. 

Meditation visualization

Meditation, often associated with mindfulness, can incorporate visualization. Meditators might be instructed to visualize light, energy centers, or peaceful scenes as part of their practice.

  • Applications: Meditation is often used to enhance mindfulness, deepen one’s self-awareness, and foster a sense of inner peace and balance.
  • Practice: While meditating, imagine a golden light radiating from within or envision being in a tranquil place like a serene mountain.

Tips for effective visualization

Visualization is an art and skill. Like other skills, its effectiveness is maximized when practiced correctly and regularly. Achieving the desired impact from visualization often requires more than imagining random images. It demands intent, clarity, and emotional connection. 

Below are a few practical tips to ensure your visualization practice is powerful and productive:

  • Prioritize details: The more vivid and detailed your mental imagery, the more immersive the visualization experience becomes. 
  • Engage all senses: Visualization is not solely about what you can see in your mind’s eye. Engaging all your senses (touch, sound, smell, and taste) can elevate the experience, especially if you can’t visualize. 
  • Cultivate positivity: The emotions you associate with your visualization can either amplify or diminish its effects. 
  • Consistency: As with some other practices, regularity boosts efficacy. 
  • Use external aids: External aids like guided imagery recordings, visualization apps, or inspiring imagery and music can act as catalysts for imagination.
Explore visualization with professional support

Support options 

Visualization is a skill that can take time to learn. If you struggle to visualize your goals, consider contacting a licensed therapist for support. A professional can offer you guided meditations and show you how visualization can be used in daily life, including if you struggle to visualize images in your mind. 

If you face barriers to in-person therapy, you might also benefit from online therapy platforms like BetterHelp. A significant benefit of online therapy regarding visualization exercises is the ability for clients to engage in therapeutic practices from home. This personalized setting, whether a bedroom or living area, provides a safe and familiar backdrop for vulnerable work. 

The increased comfort and safety of online therapy may enhance the effectiveness of visualization. In a relaxed state, clients can more readily let go of external distractions or inhibitions, allowing them to delve deeper into the visualization process and connect more effectively with their inner landscapes.

Online therapy has emerged as an effective alternative to traditional face-to-face counseling, offering clients the flexibility to seek support irrespective of geographical constraints. Several studies have proven that internet-based interventions can be as effective as conventional therapy for various mental health concerns, including depression and anxiety. 


Visualization can effectively increase mental well-being, teach individuals emotional regulation, and increase problem-solving abilities. If you struggle with visualization or are looking to increase your proficiency in this skill, reaching out to a professional may be beneficial for further guidance and support. Visualization can be a valuable skill for improving your career, relationships, and personal life.
Visualize your goals in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started