How to Visualize Anxiety Away
Is it possible to visualize anxiety away? This past week, I was watching an interview with an extraordinary rock climber named Alex Honnold. He has been climbing rock faces without a safety rope for years; and despite the terrifying nature of his exploits, he somehow maintains a state of calm even when thousands of feet above the ground. How does he do this? One strategy he uses is visualization. He visualizes anxiety away. Before each climb, Alex practices not only by climbing the rock face with ropes but also by imagining every step in climbing his route. He imagines what he'd do if certain things went wrong over and over again so that by the time he actually begins his climb, nothing can really phase him. By processing the challenges he'd face beforehand, Alex not only prepared himself for the physical challenge of his climbs, but also for the mental challenges.
The Usefulness of Visualizing Anxiety Away
This struck me as a really useful strategy. We can visualize anxiety away as well. Since anxiety can come from out of the blue at times, it rarely feels like something we have control over -- Alex's rock wall remains (relatively) stable over time, whereas anxiety's landscape can change on a daily basis. Fortunately, we are our own best guides for handling anxiety and the thoughts and feelings that induce it, and those experiences can become a map of experiences to practice with.
Visualizing anxiety away also seems similar to exposure therapy. In exposure therapy, you identify something you're afraid of experiencing and identify levels of that fear. If I were afraid of dogs, for example, then a low-level fear might be seeing a picture of a cute dog, and a high-level fear would be touching a large dog. Visualization can allow us to engage with experiences we're afraid of in much the same way that exposure therapy operates -- we can call up thoughts, feelings, or experiences we're afraid of in a controlled, safe setting and use that experience to reduce our fear.
How to Visualize Anxiety Away
Let's talk through how we can visualize anxiety away.
- Imagine a small stressor. To continue the comparison with Alex Honnold, we don't want to start by imagining falling while climbing. That would be starting with the absolute most scary situation we can think of and that's just going to increase anxiety. Instead, we want to start with the smallest thing we can think of. Let's practice by using public speaking as an example. If our biggest fear is going up to talk in front of one thousand people and forgetting the presentation, that's not something we want to tackle right away. Instead, we might imagine speaking with a close friend about the presentation in a casual setting. Selecting a good practice stressor is key for visualizing anxiety away. If all we do is imagine things that scare us a lot without working through them, we'll just stay afraid.
- Identify challenges. When we think of something frightening, it's rarely just the thing itself that's scary. In the case of public speaking, it's not just about talking in front of people, it's about how we'd react if something went wrong. So this is where we can start thinking about what could go wrong. Continuing the example above, we're imagining talking with a friend about the presentation. Some challenges we might face are forgetting a piece of information, stumbling over words, or speaking too softly. So, we could visualize that happening and note how those situations feel. Are they as scary as they sounded? When working with these low-level stressors, it will often feel less scary than we expect, and this can help break down anxiety.
- Identify solutions. Identifying potential challenges often feels easy, but finding strategies to handle those challenges can be a lot harder. But this sort of thinking is exactly how we prepare for it. In the example above, we brought up one challenge (forgetting a piece of information), so the next step is visualizing potential responses to it. There are a lot of ways we could handle forgetting information; we could move on to the next part of the presentation and omit that forgotten information, discuss something related until we remember it, or even make a joke about the information we've forgotten. By identifying how we can respond to stressors, we gain control over our fears and develop a plan to use when they come up.
Whether your biggest obstacle is a public presentation, living in a new environment, or scaling rock faces without a rope, visualization can be a great tool for reducing anxiety and engaging with challenges.
What other tips do you use for reducing anxiety? Share below.
Abitante, G. (2019, February 24). How to Visualize Anxiety Away, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, May 25 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2019/2/how-to-visualize-anxiety-away