Many of us are doing plenty of visualizations every day.
I’m sure you can remember a time when you worried so much about something that it actually happened.
The problem is that most of us are doing visualizations to create the life we don’t want; we are often using it to imagine the worst outcomes of things or worrying about the future.
Interestingly, research By Guang Yue, an Exercise Psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, has found that people who imagine themselves performing a task, improve their performance in that task without physically doing anything.
Many athletes including Olympians use it to excel in their sports. Elite athletes use techniques like guided imagery and scripting in their training to do everything from simulate practice, to overcome fear, and even recover from an injury.
What is visualization?
Generally speaking, visualization means creating a mental image of a goal you would like to accomplish in the future. You use your thoughts to imagine a certain outcome, and what you will do to get it.
Despite popular belief, visualizing isn’t about wishing and hoping something will happen. That’s fantasy. Effective visualization is future-oriented but grounded in reality.
There are huge benefits when you use visualization.
According to psychologists, visualization helps you:
- Master a new skills.
- Achieve difficult goals.
- Improve confidence, courage and resilience.
- Improve memory & recall, focus, concentration & energy regulation.
It also helps you to:
- Calm down when you feel anxious or stressed.
- Think creatively to brainstorm possible solutions and strategies.
- Improve athletic performance and strength.
If you’re anything like me, you shied away from the practice or dismissed it as non-scientific. Well, here’s all the proof you need.
The science of visualization
It turns out that the mind can’t distinguish between imagination and reality.
When you have a thought, it triggers the same cascade of neurochemicals, regardless of whether you are thinking about the past, present, or future. Your brain is stimulated the same way whether you’re physically performing an action or simply visualizing it happening in your mind’s eye.
When you think about yourself nailing a presentation or feeling a wave of pride after finishing a big project, your body and brain perceive that as being real in the present moment, even though it’s a far-off goal.
The neurochemicals stimulated go on to affect your motor control, attention, and planning, which spur you into action. Because neurons that fire together wire together, this process of imagining future outcomes creates new neural networks in your brain that help you form new beliefs, take new actions, and adopt new perspectives.
Take Control of Your RASS
In particular, visualization stimulates an area of the brain called the Reticular Activating System, which, put simply, scans your environment looking for new opportunities. That’s why when you start thinking about getting a new job or wanting to land a new client, suddenly new opportunities come your way. Your brain is scanning for them. Then, you take action on the newly available options and creative solutions you’re able to see.
Here’s another way of thinking of the Reticular Activating System RAS. Your brain is a gigantic detective. It is a filter. I just said your RAS is looking for new opportunities. Well, it is also constantly looking for evidence. It filters information. It lets certain information in, and blocks out other information. And guess who programmed that filter? You did and the people from your past.
If you’re constantly feeling like you’re unlovable, then your reticular activating system is going through the day looking for proof of that. It will find every piece of evidence that confirms that limiting belief you have.
If you think people don’t like you at work your RAS is constantly looking for evidence to confirm that belief all day long. It protects your brain from not letting everything in and only letting in stuff it agrees with.
This is why it’s so important to start reprogramming our RAS. You can reprogram your RAS to filter in meaningful, helpful information.
4-Step Visualization Method
According to science, you have to do visualization using this 4 step method.
Think about a goal you have and move through the following steps.
Goal, Effort, Problem Solving, Emotions
For example, if your goal is to improve your self-worth I want you to visualize what your life looks like and how you’re going to feel about yourself when your self-worth has improved.
Step 1. Visualize the goal.
Specifically, visualize the outcome of your goal. Close your eyes and in your mind have a specific picture of what it looks like in your life when your self-worth has improved. You may see yourself speaking up at work, you’ll see yourself talking more about your business, see yourself leaving a bad relationship, defining boundaries, going to the gym, taking care of yourself.
Step 2. Visualize the effort
Visualize yourself doing the work to achieve your goal. For example, a writer can visualize sitting down to write for an hour every morning as a way of boosting their performance on that habit. Like a skier visualizing engaging her core, visualizing the work that goes into writing a book can be as important—or even more so—as holding the finished hardback in one’s hand.
Step 3. Visualize yourself problem solving
As you start to think about the future, worries will inevitably arise. All those “what-if’s”, fears, and anxieties will rise to the surface. When they do, use them as tools to make your vision more flexible. These are called “implementation intentions”. Think through the barriers that you might encounter, both internal(confidence, energy, etc.) and external (time, money, etc). Then, visualize how you’ll respond to each roadblock.
Here’s an example: I’m horribly uncoordinated and fearful of tripping over myself when I speak. Instead of letting that thought hold me back, I visualize the absolute worst case scenario (falling on my face) and what I would actually do if that came to pass (pick myself up and make a joke about it). I mentally walk through exactly what I would say — even how I’d breath to lessen the panic.
You can use an “If-then” framework to work through these scenarios: “If I fall on my face, then I’ll pick myself up and make a joke about it.” or “If the phone rings during my writing hour, then I’ll ignore it and check for messages later.”
Step 4. Visualize your emotions
When you start to visualize, I want you to consciously think of the positive emotions you’re going to experience. I’m going to feel happy, proud, to stand taller, going to be so grateful that I made this change.
Marrying the specific image with the emotions lets you see, there I am, getting a promotion, signing a new client, going back to school, being happy not in that abusive relationship, there I am happy. When you do this, you are training your brain to have a totally different filter.
You can try all the hacks out there, but if you keep picturing yourself failing, you will. Picture the goal, picture yourself doing the work and problem solving, and picture how you’re going to feel when you succeed. Watch how things turn around for you when you do.