Many of us have difficulty managing our emotions in the best of times but the times we find ourselves in at the moment are difficult for everyone, no matter how emotionally intelligent we are. Calming yourself down may feel like an insurmountable task at the moment; yes, we all know that we’re supposed to take deep calming breaths but how can you do that when you feel panicked? While I’m neither a psychologist nor a therapist, I’ve found that visualization can be an enormous help when I am stressed out; that’s actually not just a personal opinion, but one backed up by scientific research, as I explain in Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
In a study conducted by Sander L. Koole and David Fockenberg, after testing for how skilled the participants were at managing emotion, the researchers had them write detailed descriptions of either a difficult and demanding person in their lives, along with specific encounters with that person or, alternatively, writing in great deal about an accepting and friendly person and those experiences. Since our emotional states are affected by all manner of unconscious cues, the researchers wanted to see how negative or positive focus affected participants’ functioning. After doing that exercise, the participants were asked to visualize that demanding or accepting person before being tested on how quickly they could identify a discordant schematized face on a screen—a scowling face in a sea of smiling ones, for example, or a happy face amid angry ones. Then, they were asked whether they identified with a series of negative and positive traits by checking “me” or “not me.” The results revealed that those who were adept at regulating emotion could think of a demanding person without getting derailed by negativity. But those less skilled at self-regulation were effectively derailed by the intense recall of someone negative. Most importantly, those who recalled a supportive and loving person felt better after doing so and managed their emotions better.
Setting up to visualize
In the best of all worlds, you’ll work on this by yourself, away from family members, your phone, and the news; you are trying to give yourself an emotional and mental time-out. A place you feel comfortable is ideal; if you are calmed by music, do play some.
Try visualizing a person who cares about you to tamp down stress
Other studies show that visualization can affect your state of mind in the short term and possibly even over the course of days, as a study by Katherine B. Carnelley and Angela C. Rowe showed. Writing down specifics about the person’s actions and words can help make the visualization that much more effective so spend some time preparing for your visualization; that’s what worked best in the experiments. Keep in mind that basically using visualization consciously mimics what securely attached people who are skilled at managing emotion do automatically to self-regulate; they automatically reassure themselves and back off from the clif.
Visualize the whole person using all your senses. Pull up his or her voice, how he or she laughs and smiles, for example. Recall exchanges and conversations that made you feel loved and secure, and try to take deep breaths as you fill in the details.
Visualize a place that makes you feel happy or at peace
It might not even be a place you’ve actually visited but always dreamed of going, or it could be a place you’ve been. Do use some imagery to help you imagine as fully as you can because the more detail the better; your imagination can transport you out of your home into the middle of a verdant forest, alongside a flowing brook, or on a mountain top. Or imagine a place and an activity you love, whether it’s hiking, taking photographs, or gardening.
Don’t’ forget to draw on all of your senses. For example, if you visualized being on a beach near the ocean, you’d recall the sounds of the waves and the seagulls, the taste of the salt on your lips, the scent of the ocean breezes, the feeling of walking on sand, in addition to all you would see.
A visualization for you to try
This one is from The Daughter Detox Companion Workbook and it’s intended to help you focus on inner growth, as if you were the gardener of your self. Imagining yourself in a garden filled with beautifully scented flowers and rich smell of loamy earth, surrounded by bird song and faint rustle of leaves blown by the wind, will set the stage for you to relax and focus.
Locate the areas of your body where you feel the most tension and stress;
They might be your back and shoulders, or your arms and hands.
Take a deep breath and work on letting go of that tension
by visualizing yourself as a seedling, pushing its way out of the earth,
Imagine the bright light of the sun on your face
and then feel it move slowly over your body, warming your neck and chest,
relaxing your arms and hands,
unlocking stores of vitality you’d long forgotten.
Take another deep breath and now imagine yourself as the gardener
tending to the flower’s growth.
Keep that image in mind,
seeing yourself both as the flower and the gardener,
as you take another deep breath and stretch your limbs.
These ideas are drawn from copyrighted books and all rights are reserved. Copyright © by Peg Streep 2017, 2018
Photograph by Leo Rivas. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Koole, Sander L. and Daniel A. Fockenberg. Implicit Emotion Regulation Under Demanding Conditions: The Moderating Role of Action Versus State Orientation. Cognition and Emotion, 2011, vol. 25(3), pp. 440-452.
Carnelley, Katherine B., and Angela C. Rowe. Repeated Priming of Attachment Security Influences Later Views of Self and Relationships. Personal Relationships, 2007, vol. 14(2), pp. 307-320.