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How Visualization Can Help You Battle Stress

We spend far too much time stressing out. This tip helped us tone it down a little and keep a positive outlook.

How Visualization Can Help You Battle Stress
[Photo: Flickr user Tomasz Pietek]

Forty hours a week—that’s on average how much time Scott Eblin, author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, says we get to spend doing what we want. The rest of that time is spent eating, sleeping, bathing, and mostly staying connected to work. It’s no wonder we feel more stressed out than ever.

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“The challenge for many of us today is that with everything coming at us and all we’re trying to do, it’s easy to end up in a chronic state of fight or flight,” Eblin said during our habit challenge live chat discussion on Friday.

Fight or flight, Eblin explains, is our body’s response to being in danger. The sympathetic nervous system puts our bodies on high alert, which is a good thing when you’re actually in physical danger, but damaging when it stays activated on an everyday basis.

The good news according to Eblin is that we also have a parasympathetic nervous system, also known as “rest and digest.” “It’s the opposite of fight or flight,” he explains. “Fight or flight is the gas pedal; rest and digest is the brakes. We need to use the brakes as well as the gas pedal.”

That’s where mindfulness practices come in, he says.

There are a few baby steps he recommends we take to tap on the brakes from time to time, including moving around throughout the day to increase mental focus by 30%, taking three deep breaths from your belly to clear your mind, and last week’s habit challenge, visualization.

Whenever we were overcome with worry, we challenged ourselves to first ask about what we were trying to do and how we could make that happen. Then we visualized ourselves accomplishing the steps we needed to take for success.

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Here are three reasons we loved this strategy:

It Helps With Everyday Stress

I was really pleased how applicable this trick is to different kinds of situations. I initially went into this challenge thinking I needed to reserve positive visualization for really big, serious situations. But then I found myself using it for myriad situations, some I didn’t even realize I needed help with.

For example, I get a little anxious when I have to socialize with people I normally wouldn’t. This week, before I met with a new person, I thought to myself, “What am I trying to do: I’m trying to be more social and get to know new people,” “How am I making that happen: We’re going to get lunch,” and then I visualized us eating together and chatting, with a relaxed atmosphere.

I felt confident going into my lunch because I had already imagined several things we could talk about, and just picturing us eating and chatting and being jovial really helped me get to the relaxed state I needed to be in.

This feeling of relaxation before entering a tough situation is what Eblin deems “the Big Kahuna.” “That’s what the visualization does. It calms you down and makes you feel more confident in the actual event. It’s like you’ve been there before.”

It Helps With Long-Term Stress

Visualization also helped Fast Company production director Carly Migliori last week with her long-term goal of moving into her own apartment. “New York City realty is insane, so the amount of money I need is pretty steep,” she explained. “The deadline is getting closer, and I’ve been stressing about not having enough.” The past few weeks have been especially hard on Migliori since many of her friends having been planning fun trips away. “I got really worked up and stressed out about my own situation.”

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She said that visualizing herself in her own apartment with a really awesome kitchen helped her calm down and map out her “route to freedom.”

Eblin pointed out that stopping to really imagine herself in her longer-term picture actually had an impact on the choices she’s currently making and the behaviors she’s taking today.

“Once I blew the whistle on myself, and just quit the building of emotions, it definitely got better,” she said. “I don’t need to give myself a heart attack because I can’t go on vacation until summertime.

It’s Easy To Get Back On Track

One struggle Migliori faced during last week’s challenge was what to do when she stressed about the actual process. In her job she relies on other people–people who are often late–to get things done. “I can see the end, know the process I need to go through to get there, but other people are holding me up,” she explained.

Eblin considers this an external interference, and your response to an external interference is your internal interference. He drew from coach Timothy Gallwey’s equation of P=p-i to explain how this affects us.

“Your performance equals your potential minus the interference,” he said. “We usually can’t control the external interference. We can only control the internal interference.” To do this, he suggested visualizing how you would respond to external interference. “There are lots of possibilities there.”

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Another interference we experienced during the challenge was our own negative thinking—or what Eblin calls “the itty bitty shitty committee.” “We all have that at some level,” he said. “The opportunity is to notice when it pipes up and then start talking back to it.”

Oftentimes throughout the challenge when I tried to visualize the positive I noticed negative thoughts trying to creep in. My first instinct was to try and clear those thoughts off as quickly as possible, but that seemed to just make it worse. After this happened a few times, I tried to think about my negative thoughts from a mindfulness perspective and instead accepted that they were happening and tried to explain to myself that these were just needless worries. I would say to myself, “Okay, Rachel, yes, I suppose I could fail miserably at this task I’ve done several times before, but is that likely? No, I didn’t think so.”

Talking back to the committee like I did is what the experts call disputation. “You disputed what the committee was saying with the evidence of your past performance,” Eblin explained. “How awesome is that?”

And when you visualize a scenario one way but it starts to go a completely different way?

“Take three deep breaths, observe what’s going on, and then ask yourself what am I trying to do from this point forward and how do I need to proceed,” Eblin suggested.

For the full conversation, check out the transcript from Friday’s chat. And don’t forget to try next week’s challenge with us, using lyric-free music to tune out open office distractions.

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About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for FastCompany.com’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on PopPhoto.com, AOL.com, and elsewhere.

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