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Positive Thinking Tips: Visualize!

Visualization is the power to use mental images to help achieve specific goals. It's a great tool to help change your life.

By Alina Larson, New York, New York

Close your eyes. Picture yourself lying on the soft, powdery sand of a secluded beach. Feel the warmth of the sun caressing you. Hear waves gently, rhythmically lapping near your toes. Breathe deeply, smelling the sharp sea air and the cocoa butter in your suntan lotion. A light breeze whispers...

Wait a minute! What is this? Some New Age hocus pocus?

Far from it. Visualization—the use of mental images to help achieve specific goals (in this case, bliss)—is a technique that's been practiced for ages, by everyone from Aristotle to Tiger Woods. Today doctors and psychologists have people use it to address a variety of issues: stress reduction, pain relief, breaking bad habits, conquering fears and improving athletic performance.

Different methods go by different names. With guided imagery, a practitioner helps create the images, while neurolinguistic programming is as much verbal as visual and involves changing behavior patterns through retraining the mind. In autogenic training, meditative techniques are used to relax the body in stressful situations.

By whatever name, you can make the power of visualization work for you. In fact, you've probably used it already, though perhaps not in a positive way.

"Everybody does imaging. It's called worrying," says David Bresler, Ph.D., a psychologist who cofounded the Academy for Guided Imagery in 1989. "When you worry, you're either playing a tape of what happened in the past, or imagining the future. These images have physiological consequences."

Stressful images profoundly affect the body's housekeeping systems. They trigger the "fight or flight" response in your autonomic nervous system, automatically increasing your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing, as well as rushing blood to your muscles.

Imagery is kind of a higher-order command language that you can use to influence your autonomic nervous system. If you want to raise your left hand, you have a voluntary thought and your left hand goes up. If you want to lower your blood pressure, and hence your anxiety level, you can do that, too...using imagery.

Think of it as a mind-body chat. While the conversation can happen different ways, three general rules apply.

First, a completely relaxed state is crucial. Often therapists ask clients to relax their muscles, one group at a time, working from the head down, or the toes up. Deep breathing, combined with the repetition of a calming word or phrase, can also help.

Second, visualization works best when all five senses are engaged. "If you use more modality in the mental imaging—if you see, hear, touch, smell, and feel it in your imagination—it's a much more powerful experience," says Albina Tamalonis, Psy.D., a New York-based psychologist. Just as we learn to do something new by actually setting out and doing it, rather than simply reading about how to do it, imagining with all the senses helps us teach the body and brain more effectively.

The third rule: practice, practice, practice. In a classic study done in the 1920s at the University of Chicago, three groups of basketball-playing students were tested on how accurately they shot free throws. They were then given different instructions. One group was to practice, one group not to practice, and one group to just visualize themselves shooting baskets without picking up a ball and doing it. After 20 days, the group that had not practiced did not show any improvement, the group that practiced improved by 24 percent, and the group that used visualization improved by 23 percent.

At M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, psychiatric clinical nurse Debra Sivesind has patients practice visualization to "quiet the mind." It reminds them that they still have control over their bodies and makes them better prepared to fight the disease. "The body is in a better state for healing to happen if it's relaxed," says Sivesind. "We don't know if stress causes cancer, but we do know that stress impedes healing."