Nearly everyone with an anxiety problem uses visualisation very effectively. Unfortunately they use it negatively, to reinforce their fears, rather than to dispel them!
To visualise (or visualize) is to picture something in your mind which isn't actually present at the time. Wikipedia lists many different types of visualization along with countless research references. For the purpose of using this technique to overcome anxiety we are talking about what Wikipedia calls "mental image".
When we feel anxious about something which is coming up, it keeps popping into our thoughts at various times. Whenever it pops in, we entertain it by thinking about it. We also anticipate everything untoward which might happen when the time comes. We picture the worst case scenario in every ghastly detail.
This naturally raises the arousal level and sets the survival instinct in motion. By visualising this potentially terrible thing that we are now convinced is unavoidable, we are priming our survival instinct to set the fight or flight response in motion the instant we actually encounter it.
When we imagine doing something we are actually teaching our brains to do it that way when the time comes.
Rehearsal of anything in our imagination = rehearsing it for real
Thus we programme ourselves to react to this situation with raised negative arousal or panic, the moment we enter it. We now stand no chance of not feeling anxious about it. We have trained our instincts to fear it simply because of the way we have thought about it in advance!
That is the very worst possible use for visualization!
Many people who come to see me for the first time say that they have been anxious during the previous few days. When asked why they say that it was because they kept thinking about the appointment and worrying.When asked what they were actually worried about they are often unable to tell me.
Nevertheless they have allowed themselves to keep reacting to the thought of their forthcoming appointment with negative arousal every time it has entered their head.
What's more, they have probably pictured the situation in images in their heads.
What they have done is train their survival instinct that this appointment is something dangerous and so the warnings keep coming and the anxiety is maintained.
Why, "What if…," is dangerous
If we have been somewhere or done something that hasn't gone well, when we find ourselves in the same position again we tend to think ahead as to how it will go. Usually we find ourselves looking for what might go wrong and thinking, 'What if...' These are the two most dangerous words in the English language for anyone who has problems with anxiety or raised negative arousal.
When we think, 'What if...' and we imagine what could go wrong, we are actually practising what it would be like to be part of an event that didn't go as we'd hoped.
Maybe that will be the case when the time comes and the event happens. On the other hand, and this is more often the case, it won't be half as bad as anticipated.
So we endure a lot of anxious days, hours, moments for no reason whatsoever.
Golfer visualising what went wrong before
Golfer visualising the successful outcome he wants
Why just telling ourselves not to be silly won't work!
When we get a, "what if...?" thought we get pictures in our heads as well. We "see" ourselves in the situation and are actually picturing it going wrong.
Some treatment approaches (such as CBT) teach you to talk your way out of it, to reason with your thoughts and so get rid of them. But this is illogical...
There are two parts to the brain - there is a left side and a right side. In general one side of the brain takes care of logic, words, mathematical processes, etc. In right-handed (and also many left-handed) people this is usually the LEFT side of the brain.
The RIGHT side of the brain takes care of creative activities such as art, crafts, the imagination.
As we have already seen, many of our inappropriate danger warnings come in the form of images in our heads (RIGHT brain activity). It therefore makes no sense to attempt to overcome these with logical argument and words (LEFT brain activity)!
To get rid of unwanted feelings created by what we imagine, we need to imagine it going well.
Everyone will get a little reminder, a thought, about something they have to do in the future. Instead of imagining the worst case scenario, it is far better to use visualisation to picture it happening exactly as you'd like it to happen.
At least that way you are attempting to give your mind some positive training as to how you want it to behave, rather than teaching it how not to!
There is a lot of evidence especially in the field of sports psychology, which shows that athletic performance can be improved just by imagining yourself doing the actions perfectly. Why then would we want to rehearse things going wrong? But that is exactly what all anxiety sufferers do.
How to use visualisation positively
Visualisation simply means to rest calmly and picture yourself doing whatever it is moment by moment in exactly the way you'd ideally want it to go. Each time that little, 'What if...' jumps into your mind, deal with it by picturing the event going perfectly and you being totally calm and laid back.
You can also use visualisation in a positive way if you've just been in a situation that didn't go as you'd have liked.
By doing what we all tend to do and replaying it in our minds again and again as it actually happened we are feeling those same negative feelings all over again. Each time we do this we are training the survival instinct to keep feeding us warnings about that situation whenever we come across it in the future.
Instead we need to picture it as we'd have wanted it to go. At least that way we stand some chance of having a better experience the next time.
You might find it helpful to put yourself into a calmer frame of mind before visualising. To do this you may choose to download one of the introduction downloads (staircase, chakra or cinema) I have recorded. Play one of these first and then allow yourself to drift into the visualisation of how you wanted things to have gone. By being calmer before you start you have a better chance of success.
This approach won't necessarily change your behaviour totally all at once, but at least you will then be heading in the right direction instead of training yourself in the wrong one. It can't do you any harm and will possibly do you some good.
Some people can't visualise
A recently recognised condition known as "aphantasia" occurs in about 2% of the population. As is the case with colour blindness, people are born with this and are often unaware they have it.
Those with aphantasia are unable to imagine things. Some have reported being very confused as children when they were told to count sheep in order to fall asleep.
The condition was first noted by Francis Galton in 1880 but was overlooked and only came to prominence in 2005 when a paper was published on the subject by a team at Exeter University led by Professor Zeman. This team coined the term "aphantasia".
The BBC site shows an interview with a man talking about how the condition affects him
Those with aphantasia are unable to make use of visualisation as a technique for overcoming anxiety. Instead some simple mindfulness meditations can prove useful especially when focusing the awareness on the other four senses and being aware of touch, sound, taste, breath or scent.