How far could your imagination take you?
As children, we’re constantly stretching and challenging our own imaginations: playing games, creating fantastical worlds, embracing superpowers. But as adults, as we play less and less, our imaginations don’t get so much of a workout.
Visualisation is a form of meditation that embraces the imagination. Ever thought meditation was about repressing your thoughts, emptying your mind? Think again: visualisation uses our imaginations to change our perspective and challenge the everyday, with surprisingly powerful results.
Humans have been using their imaginations therapeutically for centuries. Visualisation, sometimes called guided imagery, was harnessed by Tibetan monks as early as the 13th century, meditating on the Buddha curing disease. It’s also likely the technique stretched back even further – to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greeks placed such a high level of importance on imagination that they conceived it as a physical organ in itself.
Arguably, even prehistoric cave paintings depicting hunting are a form of visualisation: imagining the success of the collective. That’s likely to be over 100,000 years – and today, we’re just at the beginning of discovering how powerful visualisation can be when used therapeutically.
This technique can support treatment for a huge range of issues, from mental health conditions like stress, anxiety and depression, to substance abuse, and more situational challenges like grief or PTSD. Alongside behavioural issues, research has shown visualisation to be an effective treatment when managing pain, high blood pressure, and addiction.
A recent study showed marked improvements in mood, fatigue and quality of life using guided imagery in individuals with multiple sclerosis. What’s more, it has been shown to support quality of life and reduce unpleasant side effects like nausea and anxiety in patients with cancer.
So, how does visualisation work? Well, it’s not just about visual imagery, as the name suggests. Meditation that involves focusing on a particular place, physical outcome, or situation can involve visuals – but also leans into all the senses, from touch and sound to taste and smell. The more complete the sensory imagination, the more effective the visualisation.
It’s often used to target specific issues, though evidence suggests is helps with setting goals and constructively achieving ambitions. Visualisation is very regularly used by elite athletes – systematically taking themselves through the route of a race, or visualising a certain speed or complex turn.
It can also be used emotionally – to take you out of an analytical, thinking, head space, into a more intuitive, felt ‘heart space’ – and to help you make decisions instinctively, rather than getting trapped in spiralling thoughts.
Most people start their visualisation journey with a trained professional, meditation teacher, or therapist, but once a practice has been established, it is also easy to practice on your own – and it’s something you can do anywhere, anytime.