That’s the basic premise for using visualisation for wellness.
It can be applied for the benefit of both physical and mental health.
For example, some people with arthritis visualise pouring viscous oil into their joints to lubricate them and create a cushion separating bones. Some people with hay fever imagine their immune system making friends with pollen instead of attacking it. People with cancer imagine their immune systems destroying tumours.
I met a gentleman once who had suffered with depression for years and despite treatment and therapy, nothing had worked for him. Then he learned about visualisation and pictured depression as a broken mirror. It represented how he, himself, felt broken.
Then he imagined making the mirror whole again. He pictured sweeping up the broken shards and melting them in a cauldron over a fire, before pouring the liquid mirror into the mirror frame and letting it cool. He then held up the renewed mirror.
He had turned brokenness (representing illness) into wholeness (representing wellness). He did it every day, just a couple of minutes each day, and within two months his depression had lifted, and he felt renewed again.
The important thing about visualisation is simply getting to a place of wellness in your imagination. How you get there is up to you. The starting point is what you know of a diagnosis or what something feels like, and the end point is some mental representation of wellness.
You don’t need to know specific details of what something looks like. Ten people with the same condition might visualise ten different things, but so long as the end points of their visualisations represent wellness, then they are all correct.
Some of the ten might have detailed medical knowledge or insights into what specific biology looks like. Others might just picture a blob shrinking and disappearing altogether, where the blob represents the condition, a tumour, or the presence of a pathogen of some sort. Some might imagine one shape turning into another, where the starting shape represents illness, and the end shape represents wellness, or even changing a colour that represents illness into one that represents wellness. And they’re all correct.
You can only do it right … so long as your end point is a mental representation of wellness.
The key is to create a mental representation. It’s something that represents mentally what you’re imagining.
Some people mentally represent their immune system as piranha fish, others as Pac men, yet others with detailed medical knowledge picture what they know specific immune cells to look like and function like.
What if you can’t visualise?
This is a common question I get asked.
First, replace the word visualise with imagine. Everyone can imagine and we all do it in our own ways. Whatever way you imagine, you’re doing it right.
For some, the word ‘visualise’ presupposes that they must ‘see’ in their minds eye in perfect clarity, like an HD movie scene. But the word ‘imagine’ grants us more freedom.
Some indeed imagine things as clear pictures, but others imagine more in words, sounds, or they simply create direct intentions. Some feel more than they see. Everyone is correct because there’s no one single way to imagine.
More important than how you visualise is that you are clear about your mental representations, that is, that you are clear about your mental story.
For example, the gentleman I spoke of above was clear that he was turning a broken mirror into a whole mirror. If he was uncertain or vague about his ‘story’, whether his starting point was a broken mirror and end product was a whole mirror, or how he was going to turn a broken mirror into a whole one, then it probably wouldn’t have worked as well.
Making a clear decision to represent the immune system as piranha fish eating viruses is better than being vague or uncertain about what your immune system should be mentally represented as.
It’s the certainty of how you plan to imagine things that counts, that is, the clarity of how you are going to mentally represent illness, wellness, and how you will turn illness into wellness.
How long should you visualise for?
This is another question I get asked a lot.
There’s no correct length of time. More important than how long you visualise for is that you visualise consistently.
For example, doing a 30-minute visualisation one day and then forgetting to visualise for a week, then doing another 30 minutes, forgetting again, then another half hour visualisation four or five days later again, isn’t very consistent.
But visualising for five minutes every day for two weeks is consistent and will likely be more effective.
Think of it like trying to use a big hammer to break a large piece of rock. You smack it a couple of times and then forget about it, then come back a couple of days later and hit it a few more times before giving up and concluding that the hammer isn’t big enough.
Yet someone might come along with a tiny hammer and make repetitive taps with the hammer – over and over again – for several hours. Eventually, the rock will split and then break apart.
It was repetition more than size that mattered the most.
Repetition also shapes brain circuits, which offers us an insight into how visualisation probably works. Research shows that doing a thing over and over again builds connections in the brain through what is known as neuroplasticity. The crux is that when we visualise doing the thing instead of actually doing it, the brain networks change to more or less the same extent. In other words, in some ways the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary.
This was effectively shown in a study where volunteers either played piano notes each day for five days or imagined playing the notes instead. Brain scans revealed that the brain changed to the same extent, in the same region, regardless of whether they played the notes with their fingers or in their minds.
Visualisation can be very powerful and much more so than most of us realise. Science is only beginning to properly probe it.
In one study of women with breast cancer undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, half of them also visualised their immune systems destroying cancer. Even after four cycles of chemotherapy, the immune systems of the women who visualised were more actively destroying cancer cells than the immune systems of the women who hadn’t visualised.
Note also, here, that the women weren’t visualising instead of undergoing treatment. It’s important to say this about visualisation.
It’s not a substitute for medical advice or healthy lifestyle changes, but something that we do in addition to these things, just as you don’t meditate instead of sleeping but in addition to it, and you tend to find that meditation enhances your sleep.
In the interests of keeping this blog relatively short, I’ll share the science of how visualisation works in another blog.
Just remember this: Turn illness into wellness.
Create a clear mental representation and do it over and over again, always ending on a mental representation of wellness.
In a nutshell, that’s how to use visualisation to help create wellness.
Reference: If you want to learn more about visualisation and the mind-body connection, you can read more in my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, which contains chapters on different aspects of the mind-body connection and how to harness it – from the placebo effect, meditation, to research on the use of visualisation to improve recovery from stroke, to its use in sports, plus how to create visualisation strategies, and an A-Z list of conditions with example viusualisations for each.
Copyright 2022 David R. Hamilton PhD.