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Reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by anxiety? If so, you’re not alone. Stress and anxiety are common issues, with data from the APA’s Stress in America report suggesting that the average American adult rates their level of stress as 5.6 out of 10.
More than simply being an annoyance, anxiety is a major health issue for many people. In fact, research shows that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting more than 18 percent of the US adult population every year.
While stress and anxiety can be difficult to deal with, the good news is that both are treatable. If you have an anxiety disorder, options such as psychotherapy and medication can often help you calm your mind and gain more control over your thoughts and feelings.
It’s also often possible to deal with anxiety through visualization -- a practice of creating images in your mind to promote calmness, enhance your performance or simply develop the emotional toolkit required to deal with certain situations.
We’ve shared nine of these techniques and exercises below, along with information on how you can use them to gain more control over feelings of stress and anxiety.
Visualization is the process of envisioning an image of a certain item, scene or situation in the mind. For example, a person may visualize a situation that could happen in the future as a sort of mental rehearsal for the real event.
While visualization might not sound particularly scientific, it’s actually an important part of many types of therapy for anxiety and other mental health disorders.
For example, in psychotherapy, visualization is often used to create a scene that causes certain feelings for a person, such as anxiety. By visualizing this scene, it’s often possible to talk about how it affects a person’s thoughts or feelings, as well as how to deal with its negative effects.
Visualization exercises are used in the treatment of both mental and physical health issues. For example, research has found that guided imagery — a focused, visualization-based approach to relaxation — is often helpful for people undergoing treatment for certain types of cancer.
Visualization techniques can also be highly effective tools for developing confidence in yourself and gaining the motivation required to accomplish your goals.
One of the biggest advantages of visualization as an approach for dealing with anxiety is that it’s something you can do by yourself in any environment, including at home.
Whether you’re feeling anxious, stressed or simply overwhelmed by life, try using one or several of the following techniques to change your mental state.
Sometimes, the simplest visualization methods are the best ones. If you’re experiencing anxiety and need to mitigate it, try to visualize a quiet, relaxing and peaceful environment in which your anxiety triggers are no longer a concern for you.
For some people, this could mean an isolated beach with soothing waves breaking against the sand. For others, it could be a visualized walk in nature, an unforgettable view from the top of a mountain summit or an isolated boat in the middle of a lake.
The key is to imagine a situation in which you feel calm, relaxed and happy. Remember that anxiety is a temporary emotion, and changing your environment — even if just mentally — is often an effective way to remind yourself that you can move beyond it.
One great way to use visualization to change your thoughts and behavior is to visualize yourself succeeding in life and feeling free of your anxiety. (Athletes do this all the time before competing in big events.)
It also helps to imagine this: If anxiety wasn’t part of your life, how would you feel? What would you spend your time thinking about and doing? What new hobbies would you take up, and what steps would you take to boost your existing hobbies and passions to the next level?
If your career is a source of your stress and anxiety, how could it be different? Try to develop a mental picture of yourself after you’ve succeeded, complete with what’s new in your life as well as what’s no longer there.
Try to envision a scenario that’s as detailed as possible. The more detailed your vision, the more realistic it will feel — which may increase the effects of the neural connections your brain forms in response to visualization.
If you’d like a tangible item you can use to help you deal with anxiety, you may want to try creating a vision board.
Vision boards are commonly used for personal finance. By creating a board with specific goals based on a person’s visualization of their future, they may be more likely to take action towards making that future a reality.
Just as people use vision boards to create an image of their financial future, you can create a vision board outlining your specific treatment goals to help you take action toward overcoming anxiety. In fact, vision boards have been used as part of therapeutic practices.
Your board could include images of situations or objects that make you feel calm, or of specific feats you’d like to accomplish, such as keeping cool while speaking in front of others. Try to focus on the things that remind you of your goals for overcoming stress and anxiety.
When you’re feeling anxious, sometimes a quick and simple technique for decompressing can help calm your mind so you can relax.
One such visualization technique is the blue light technique, which involves visualizing yourself in the middle of a calm blue light. As you inhale, imagine the light filling your lungs, head and body. Then, as you exhale, visualize your anxiety fading away as dark smoke.
The idea behind the blue light technique is to visualize an environment that allows you to take in deep, controlled and deliberate breaths.
Research shows that diaphragmatic breathing — a type of breathing that engages your stomach, abdominals and diaphragm — may help trigger a relaxation response in your body.
Experts have even found that deep, slow and deliberate breathing can lower levels of cortisol — a hormone that’s involved in stress. Try the blue light technique whenever you feel you could use more calmness and anxiety reduction.
Many mental disorders, including depression and anxiety, are associated with certain methods of thinking about past events.
One pattern of thinking that’s commonly associated with anxiety is rumination — which involves thinking about the same issue (often a negative life event from the past) over and over.
“Ruminate” is derived from the Latin term for chewing cud. Just like a cow endlessly chews on its partly digested food, people who ruminate think about the same problems again and again, allowing them to dominate their lives.
If you’re prone to ruminating and think that it may play a role in your anxiety, one approach that may help you gain more control over your thoughts and feelings is the stop sign technique.
The stop sign technique is simple. When you feel like your brain is stuck on a certain topic, or if you tend to immediately imagine the worst possible outcome for any situation, try to visualize a big, bright red stop sign.
When you see the sign, take a moment to ask yourself whether what you’re thinking about is a positive thing or something that could make you feel more worried, stressed or depressed.
Thinking of a stop sign can be a powerful visualization technique for stopping rumination, since it’s a simple, memorable mental image that forces you to interrupt your thoughts and take action to change them.
One common form of anxiety is status anxiety: a feeling of concern or worry that you might be stuck at your current position in life forever, that you may not live up to society’s “standards,” or that you’ve fallen behind your peers or other people.
Status anxiety can have a severe impact on your wellbeing and quality of life. Scientific research has even linked status anxiety to reduced career satisfaction.
One way to deal with status anxiety is to visualize yourself in the shoes of someone you admire, respect or view as having accomplished your desired goals.
Ask yourself what they might have struggled with, whether they might have felt the same things as you do right now, and if they might have responded to these feelings in a different way.
When you view other people’s lives as an outsider, it’s easy to obsess over the good and ignore the stress, anxiety and other difficulties they may have faced. Try using visualization to step into another person’s shoes and figure out how they might have dealt with these challenges.
If you feel anxious because you’re overwhelmed by daily challenges like deadlines to meet and expectations put on you by others, the liquid quiet technique may help you clear your mind of stray thoughts so you can achieve a sense of calm and focus.
The liquid quiet technique involves visualizing quiet as something you can see and feel, such as a fluid that’s all around you. Try to see the physical embodiment of quiet pouring over your body and dulling the distractions that are going on around you.
As the liquid quiet covers your entire body, take a moment to appreciate the mental calmness as it causes the noise of life to become duller and less meaningful.
Seeing quiet as something tangible is one of several effective visualization techniques for when your mind is racing with worries, uneasiness and other anxiety-inducing thoughts that get in the way of your everyday life.
Many different types of therapy are used to treat anxiety disorders, including some that involve directly confronting objects and situations that can cause or worsen your anxiety.
One such form of therapy is exposure therapy, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that often involves spending brief periods of time learning to tolerate the anxiety and distress that occurs when you’re exposed to your anxiety triggers.
Exposure therapy can involve direct exposure in a supportive environment, or involve imagined events that play a role in your anxiety.
As part of therapy for anxiety, your mental health provider might help you act out scenarios in which you’re exposed to your anxiety triggers through visual imagery. This can help to gradually reduce the irrational fear and other negative feelings you associate with these triggers.
If you have a specific phobia, such as a fear of flying or heights, visualizing yourself in this type of scenario at home may gradually help you feel more comfortable, reducing your feelings of anxiety when you’re placed in a similar situation in real life.
In some cases, visualizing yourself feeling good and overcoming your anxiety can develop your confidence and help you better navigate future experiences.
However, it’s sometimes helpful to do the opposite by visualizing yourself in a bad scenario, such as a worst possible outcome for one of your common fears.
Many anxiety disorders involve fears of negative events. For example, people affected by panic disorder often have feelings of impending doom, while those with generalized anxiety disorder may experience irritability which could impact relationships or work.
Instead of just feeling comfortable, try to think about what you’d do to recover if something bad happened. For example, if you lost your job, how would you handle the situation? What steps would you take to get your career and financial life back on track?
Visualizing the worst and seeing yourself overcome it can not only build confidence — it can also help you develop practical skills that reduce anxiety in situations such as a stressful work day, disagreement or serious personal setback.
If you’re prone to anxiety, the practice of visualization can make dealing with your symptoms an easier process and improve your quality of life.
Visualization is a powerful technique, but it shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for other types of treatment for anxiety disorders, such as medication and/or therapy.
If you’re worried that you may have an anxiety disorder, you can take part in an evaluation using our online psychiatry service. You’ll receive private, ongoing follow-ups from a licensed provider and, if appropriate, prescription medication to help control your symptoms.
Want more practical tips for dealing with anxiety? Our free online mental health resources share proven techniques from licensed therapists and mental health professionals that you can use to manage your anxiety and improve your mental wellbeing.