When most people think of visualizing, they don’t know the extent to which visualizing is scientifically proven and the profound effects it can have on both your brain and your body. The intention of this post is to give you an understanding on how to practice visualization, and we also have our own guided visualization below. But before that, I’d like to share some science on how powerful visualizing just is. If you’re already 100% sold on it, then feel free to skip ahead. If there’s an ounce of doubt as to what visualizing can do for you, then spend an extra minute or two reading the whole way through. What’s the science and proof behind visualizing?
A compelling example of visualizations being used to relieve pain is from the example of psychiatrist turned pain specialist, Dr Michael Moskowitz. If you want the long story, click here – it’s a great and fascinating read. Here’s the short story: Dr Moskowitz suffered a serious accident when water-skiing. The severe injuries left with battling with crippling pain that dominated his life for 13 years. When all conventional methods of treatment had failed, he began researching the discovery that the brain is neuroplastic (it’s always changing & adapting) and seeing how this might relate to him. He realized that many of the areas in the brain that fire in chronic pain also process thoughts, sensations, images, memories, movements, emotions, and beliefs – when they’re not processing pain, that is. He thought that if he could practice visualizing pain relief when pain strikes, that will help him ‘reclaim’ the areas of the brain that get ‘hijacked’. He started noticing a reduction in pain within a few weeks. Within a few months he had his first pain free periods. Within a year he was almost always pain free. He shared his discovery with his patients, helping with chronic conditions including low-back pain, cancer pain, irritable bowel, arthritis and more. I’m the founder of the Pathways website that you’re reading now, and the associated chronic pain therapy app (Google Play & Appstore links at the bottom of the post, if interested) and visualizing pain relief has a very profound effect when I was battling with chronic pain. After years of intense computer use, I developed Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) in both of my arms. Being naive, I thought the pain would pass and I continued computer use (my work depends on it) til it got to the point where I couldn’t even open a can of beans let alone type a sentence. I realized that the pain had become chronic and for years I tried every treatment method that was recommend, and even some that I was skeptical about. From massage to ice treatment, complete rest, all sorts of supplements, acupuncture, modifying my workspace, two invasive surgeries and more. What saved me was when one doctor told me that there was nothing mechanically wrong with me. I had felt pain for so long, that my nervous system and brain were not creating pain on autopilot whenever I encountered something related to my original injury (typing). I stumbled across the article linked to above and the process Dr Moskowitz used. This, along with a handful of other ‘mindbody’ techniques helped me eliminate all pain within just a few months. Life-changing.
A study looking at brain patterns in weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when they only imagined lifting. In some cases, research has revealed that mental practices are almost as effective as true physical practice, and that doing both is more effective than either alone. For instance, in his study on everyday people, Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist from Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, compared “people who went to the gym with people who carried out virtual workouts in their heads”. He found that a 30% muscle increase in the group who went to the gym. However, the group of participants who conducted mental exercises of the weight training increased muscle strength by almost half as much. That’s incredible! Essentially, when you’re visulizing performing a certain activity, you’re getting those neural pathways to fire and as a result – you’re making those neural pathways stronger. Research such as the above demonstrates that not only will the neural pathways associated with particular activities become stronger, but it can actually result in real physical changes to the body. No wonder why every successful sportsperson does some sort of visualization practice.
Here are some people that you might be familiar, and their thoughts on visualization. From Oprah Winfrey who says: “Create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life, because you become what you believe. ”. Here’s a quote from actor Will Smith: “Our thoughts, our feelings, our dreams, our ideas are physical in the universe.” And finally, the thoughts of martial arts superstar Conor McGregor: “…when things are going good and you visualize good things happening , that’s easy. What’s not easy is to do is when things are going bad and you’re visualizing the good stuff. And that’s what I was able to do. … Visualizing good things in times of struggle, when you can do that, that really makes the law of attraction work.” Almost every super successful person – be it successful in their personal or business life, performs visulization at some stage. We know that it already affects the neural pathways in the brain, and can result in physical changes to the body – but visualization also helps us set a clear target and reaffirm the belief that we can achieve it.
So, how do I visualize for pain relief? What do I think of? As mentioned in the ‘visualizations in pain management & relief’ section, a profound image that many people use with great success is to actually imagine the pain in their body. You might think of it as an annoying little creature, a current running through your body or what’s most popular is to think of it like redness on the surface of your skin. You can then imagine this pain easing out of your body. You could imagine that you’re able to manipulate the pain. Perhaps by having it change from red to another colour – and that might change the way you experience that pain. You might incorporate deep breathing with your visulization and on every exhale, imagine that the pain is leaving your body. In the Pathways app, you can create your own online avatar and then mark out pain wherever it hurts, just as you can see in the app screenshots. In the visualization sessions that we go through together, we often use this avatar as a visual aid. You see the pain melting away, and that helps many patients with chronic pain create that vivid mental image of the pain receding which is so important when visualizing pain relief. The more vivid the image, the better.
You can also think up your own visualization to see how this works for you. Here’s one of our visualization sessions where we take a trip inside your body to turn off the chronic pain response. This may resonate better with some people, and allow them to create a deeper and more vivid mental image – therefore taking back the parts of the brain that get hijacked when in pain. This pleasant experience aims to fill your body with feel good chemicals as opposed to stress and anxiety.
Guided Pain Relief Relief Visualisation
I hope you found that guided visualization useful. But it doesn’t end there. Some people imagine their pain as ice with their willpower as the sun. Every time the sun beats down on the ice, the pain melts away. Or perhaps you’re a sci-fi geek (like me!). You could imagine a Star Wars galactic battle raging inside your body, and piece by piece the rebels are taking over the dark side (aka, the pain).
What pain relief visualizations have you tried? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. And if you suffer from chronic pain, you can download the Pathways app for free – links below!