How to Combat Anxiety – Part 4 of 5 Miniseries – Practical Ideas to Settle and Soothe- Visualization and Imagery

How can we use imagery and visualization to settle and soothe our minds and bodies from anxious, fearful, and negative thoughts?

Let’s continue the conversation on how to let our body and mind know, “thanks for keeping me on alert but I’m ok right now and I’ve got this”.

I wanted to be outdoors when recording, although I did sacrifice sound and video quality to some degree, I decided to go with it. Being outdoors is definitely my happy place and whenever I use guided imagery or visualization, some elements of nature always make their way in. Visualizing nature might also work for you or you might have some other things that really connect when it comes to using your imagination as a resource.

whenever I use guided imagery or visualization, some elements of nature always make their way in.

Photo by Riccardo Ciarini on Unsplash

What is visualization and imagery?
​Imagery or visualization involves using your imagination to help put your body and mind in a different state. In most cases, it is used to help create a more relaxed state but it can also help with things like focus and performance.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Imagining has the power to change brain activity

 

Our brains are pretty amazing. Connecting with our imagination and our thoughts is something that people are very interested in and that scientists have been increasingly researching especially in the fields of athleticism and mindfulness.

 

 

 

 

​after an 8-week meditation program, the amygdala (brain’s smoke alarm) was less activated when exposed to emotional content

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Research studying the brain of those who meditate or practice mindfulness on a regular basis have shown that brain activity changes during meditation. What’s even more interesting is that the changes that take place during meditation are maintained even when participants are not meditating. One study using FMRI (takes pictures of the brain and records brain activity) found that after an eight week meditation based program, the amygdala (our brain’s smoke alarm) was less activated when exposed to emotional content.

Why do we care to know this?!?!

​Well the amygdala is like the brain’s smoke alarm, it alongside with other brain structures, take the stimulus we receive in the world and helps our brain (and body) decide what to make of it- is this a threat? Is this enjoyable? Do I need to freak out right now? So if research on the brain is telling us that our amygdala activation is changing that is important to a society that has more recently been living in the crux of perpetual anxiety. It means we can play an active role in helping ourselves out when it comes to upsetting thoughts and feelings and our response.

 

Photo by Sean Kong on Unsplash

The thing is that the emotions of fear and anxiety are based in the memory of something that was scary or in the anticipation that something terrible might happen which, “triggers a habitual fear response…… even if there is no actual present-moment threat”.

The take away- it is VERY good to have a brain and body that can respond to threat when we are in ACTUAL danger AND it is even better if we can help that brain and body to become super efficient at sifting through what is actually a threat and what is not.

Photo by Chau Cedric on Unsplash

Another way that imagery and visualization has been researched is in the realm of athletics. Imagining doing an activity, like a sport, prior to actually doing the activity can help our brain remember the neural pathways needed for that physical activityAthletes can use imagery and visualization to improve physical performance and to perform under pressure- Amazing!

So that’s pretty cool and speaks to the power of visualization and imagery, but before I digress any further let me bring us back to using visualization and imagery to settle and soothe our minds and bodies when we are flooded with anxious, fearful, or negative thoughts and feelings.

What I like to use when it comes to settling and soothing the mind and the body are visualizations such as containment, safe place or safe state imagery. The reason I like these in particular is because I find they are very effective at kicking in the parasympathetic system (rest and relax) and I can access them any time.

Image par Reimund Bertrams de Piaxbay

Container Visualization
This visualization focuses on creating some imagery of a container or vessel of sorts that can hold upsetting, painful, or difficult thoughts and feelings until you are ready to come back to them. This is great for in the moment settling of the mind and body. The idea here is that you can use your imagination to put difficult thoughts and feelings “on the shelf” temporarily to be able to focus again or continue on with your day, but that you can come back to them when you feel supported to do so.

​Here is an example of a guided visualization that is about 7 minutes long.

Safe Place Visualization
Safe place visualization can be a great tool to respond to overwhelming moments. Sometimes the idea of a safe place may be difficult for a person to imagine. In particular if your experiences hold trauma or spaces that generally felt unsafe. I will always invite clients to consider that the space may be one they’ve been before, one they imagine they want to go to one day, or perhaps it is a completely imagery place. At the end of a safe place visualization, you can also imagine a word or phrase that might help bring your mind and body back to this more relaxed and settled state at another time. An alternative is to take a few moments after the visualization to draw, paint, or write about the place. This can help it to stay with us in a meaningful way  to come back to at another time, if that feels like an option.

it is very good to have a brain and body that can respond to threat when we are in ACTUAL danger AND it is even better if we can help that brain and body to become super efficient at sifting through what is actually a threat and what is not.

A note on making it more meaningful-
Introducing and using visualization and imagery to help settle your mind and body comes with a few considerations. In my experience, they can be very effective as a one off. If you are needing something in the moment and don’t plan on using it again, it is ok to access this practice once and you may see that it is quite helpful.

Saying that, I think the more you practice, the more benefit you will get from it. Just like in those studies looking at the effects of meditation and imagery for athletics on the brain, the more we activate certain parts of the brain, the more efficient our brain becomes at lighting those areas up.

There may be some scripts that work better for you than others. There are lots of videos, books, blogs, apps and websites that offer so many different types of visualization and imagery scripts. Some are specific to theme, timing, or for specific areas of life (sports performance, addictions, anxiety, stress, etc). I would really encourage you to look at some different options and see what fits for you. On that note, the voice and the pace of guided visualizations are unique. Have a listen to the first few seconds of some guided visualizations and if you don’t like the voice or something is just not sitting well for you, try something different!

Here are some resources to consider checking out:
https://psychcentral.com/lib/imagery-basic-relaxation-script/
https://www.innerhealthstudio.com/imagery-and-visualization.html
https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/
https://www.developgoodhabits.com/best-mindfulness-apps/
https://www.mirecc.va.gov/cih-visn2/Documents/Patient_Education_Handouts/Visualization_Guided_Imagery_2013.pdf

 

Photo by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash

 

If you found this post helpful, spread it by emailing to a friend or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook- Thanks! Also, be sure to come back and check out Part V, where I’ll be talking about how connecting to our physical self (our body) can help combat anxiety.

Happy imaginings!


Chantal Côté (she/her) is a psychologist and teen life coach living in Calgary, Alberta. After over a decade in non-profit and community mental health, Chantal started Pyramid Psychology, a practice dedicated to supporting teens – a population she is constantly amazed by. Chantal is on a mission to help 100,000 teen girls (and their parents) build bulletproof mindsets so they can weather the ups and downs of life. As part of this goal, Chantal has had the privilege of speaking at various events – virtual and live – to support teens and parents.

Outside of this passion, Chantal is often in nature, writing poetry, playing ball hockey and hanging out with her loved ones.

Each week, Chantal writes a blog article in response to issues she hears from the parents and teens she connects with. If you have something you’d like to read more on – email ideas and questions to info@pyramidpsychology.com or DM us via Instagram or Facebook. 

How to Combat Anxiety – Part 2 of 5 Miniseries – Practical Ideas and Tips to Help Settle and Soothe the Mind and Body

USING OUR SENSES

Our brain processes the world through our senses- what we see, feel, hear, smell, and taste. How we think, dream, and how our memories are stored are all encoded through our senses (e.g. imagining the sound of someone’s voice, smelling cookies and remembering a time you baked cookies with your favourite aunt, dreaming of a familiar place or person). Bringing awareness to our senses can be a powerful tool to help us cope with anxious and negative thoughts and feelings.

We can use our senses to tune into the present moment and to our current environment, which can help our mind and body settle

By doing this, we help bring our prefrontal cortex (reasoning and logic part of the brain) online and tune into the “now”. This can be something that can be really helpful if we are feeling upset, overwhelmed or just overly activated as it can help us to settle and soothe our mind and body.

 

Photo by Solstice Hannan on Unsplash

What are some ideas you can try to bring awareness to your senses?
The 54321 strategy
This strategy uses a countdown using each of your senses. The most commonly known way that I know of practicing this strategy is going through each sense and pairing it with a number. For example, using your sense of sight, name 5 things you can see in your current environment right now.

***You can name things aloud if you want but you can also name them in your head, both can be effective!

Next, name 4 things you can feel right now. For this one, consider internal and external feelings. Internal feeling like “I’m worried, I’m stressed, I’m tired” and external feelings like “I can feel my feet on the ground” or “I can feel the back of legs on the chair”.

Next, name 3 things you can hear right now. Next, name 2 things you can smell right now. Sometimes smell can be a little bit tricky, if that is your experience, perhaps you can access the smell of your clothes or your hair or even just the smell of the air.

Lastly, name 1 thing you can taste right now. I like to use a variation on this one and I often invite teens to say one statement that lets them know they are going to be ok in some way, for example “I am ok”, “I will get through this”, “I’ve got this”., “I am going to be ok”.

Photo by Matthew Payne on Unplash

 

54321 Variation
Another way to try this strategy is to use the countdown idea and this time honing in on some of the senses that are generally more accessible. I mean senses that are a little easier to access for most people for example, our sense of sight, touch/feel, and hearing. This time you would begin a countdown that is naming things like this: 5 things you can see right now, 5 things you can feel right now, 5 things you can hear right now. Next, name 4 things you can see right now, 4 things you can feel right now, 4 things you can hear right now. Next, name 3 things you can see right now…… well you get the point and you would continue until you get to naming 1 of each of the senses. This variation can be helpful if you are needing a little extra time to get your “thinking brain” back online.

The insight timer blog also has an article on the 54321 strategy, a variation called the HALT technique, and an audio clip with a guide 54321 exercise.

Photo by Hayes Potter on Unsplash

Tuning into one specific sense 
In this strategy you choose a specific sense to focus on and you can give yourself a few different challenges. One example of this is a hearing challenge, where you name as many things as you can hear in 10 or 20 seconds.

Another strategy is distance hearing, where you begin by noticing sounds you can hear as a part of you (inside) such as your breathing or your stomach noises (especially if lunch time is approaching!). Next, you distance your hearing and name sounds (things, people, animals, etc.) you can hear around you and nearby. Next, you distance your hearing even more and challenge yourself to  name sounds you can hear in the next room or further until you can’t notice any new sounds.

 

Photo by Alex Jackman on Unsplash

Another idea using our sense of sight is spot a colour. You start by choosing a colour and naming as many things as you can that are the selected colour or a close variation of that colour. You can lengthen this exercise by repeating it using every colour of the rainbow. I particularly like this one in an outdoor setting, especially in fall or spring when a variety of colours are available to us.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Our sense of smell is another option. If there are smells that you experience as comforting or soothing (for me that would cinnamon or the smell of a warm pot of homemade spaghetti sauce- yes I like food!), perhaps you can have those smells accessible for you. Now, having the smell of homemade spaghetti sauce on hand is not super practical, but if there are other scents like lavender, rosewater, peppermint, citrus, or a blend of essential oils, it is much easier to work with.

Some people will use roll on scent sticks or lava bead bracelets with a few drops of a soothing scent. If you find the smell of your laundry soap of shampoo, you can use your clothes or hair, and take some sniffs of those. I would add one point of caution around our sense of smell-  smell is highly linked to memory, so I would advise testing out a smell before you use it in a situation where you are upset and are trying to settle and soothe.

If you found this post helpful, spread it by emailing to a friend or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook- Thanks! Also, be sure to come back and check out Part III, where I’ll be talking about using breathing to combat anxiety.


Chantal Côté (she/her) is a psychologist and teen life coach living in Calgary, Alberta. After over a decade in non-profit and community mental health, Chantal started Pyramid Psychology, a practice dedicated to supporting teens – a population she is constantly amazed by. Chantal is on a mission to help 100,000 teen girls (and their parents) build bulletproof mindsets so they can weather the ups and downs of life. As part of this goal, Chantal has had the privilege of speaking at various events – virtual and live – to support teens and parents.

Outside of this passion, Chantal is often in nature, writing poetry, playing ball hockey and hanging out with her loved ones.

Each week, Chantal writes a blog article in response to issues she hears from the parents and teens she connects with. If you have something you’d like to read more on – email ideas and questions to info@pyramidpsychology.com or DM us via Instagram or Facebook. 

How to Combat Anxiety – Part 1 of 5 Miniseries – Practical Ideas and Tips to Help Settle and Soothe the Mind and Body

 

 

Welcome to the first part of a 5 mini series on how to combat anxiety. Combat might sound a little harsh or not quite the way you view your relationship with anxiety. What I mean by this is how to let your body and your mind know, “thank you for keeping me on alert, but I’ve got some ideas and strategies, I’m ok, and I’ve got this right now”.

I’m writing with teen anxiety in mind, but these ideas can be useful for anyone!

Here’s a video in case that works better for your style.

The next four video/blog combinations in this series will describe some practical ideas and strategies that can help settle and soothe your body and your mind when you are experiencing a flood of anxious or distressing thoughts.

Today, I will be laying out the framework that I’m using to understand how anxious and distressing thoughts impact us and what it is that we can do about it.

Photo by Fabrizio Chiagano on Unsplash

 

​I won’t be talking about thinking patterns or thought (cognitive) processes in this series – I will mainly focus on things that you can use “in the moment” to start to settle and soothe your mind and your body. Some of the ideas and tips will cover using our breath, our senses, our imagination, and our bodies to basically bring on-line our systems that are most relaxed-based.

I have been working from the framework of Compassion Focused Therapy. Some of the folks in this field are: Paul Gilbert, Deborah LeeKristin NeffPaul Tirsch, just to name a few. All of these folks have done some great work in the compassion focused realm and I think they do a good job at explaining how anxious thoughts, trauma, and different systems impact us in different ways.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

​The model I specifically  like is the three circle model because it describes three systems that we experience that affect our mind and our bodies. The first system is the threat system and this system is designed to protect us and keep us safe from danger.

​It is a really important system if our goal is to stay alive. When this system is activated, it is often associated with feelings of anxiety, anger, disgust, sadness and shame. The model talks about different hormones and endorphins that are released in different systems and cortisol (our primary stress hormone) is the main one in the threat system.

THREE CIRCLE MODEL

​The next system is the drive system. This system is linked to motivation and desire. This system kicks in if we are trying to achieve a goal, accomplish a task or moving towards something or someone we desire. This system often leads to feelings of excitement, drive, motivation, and joy. The related hormones with this system are primarily dopamine and serotonin, which are associated with pleasure, reward, and feel good sensations.

Photo by Clique Images on Unsplash

The third system is the soothe system. This system is thought to be one that is often underdeveloped or not as large as the other systems, in particular if you are someone who often experiences anxious or distressing thoughts or if you are someone who often feels shame or guilt. This system kicks in and leads us to feel content, calm, safe and soothed. The related hormone linked to this system is oxytocin.

The soothe system is the one that compassion focused therapies encourage us to develop and grow as a way to support when we are experiencing threat system feelings and are not in fact in immediate danger. Compassion focused therapy also teaches about balance of the systems and getting to know which of our systems is more developed, understanding how it is serving us (helpful vs. harmful), and considering room to develop one of the other systems to better support us.

I like this model because it talks about these systems as ones that exist globally, in all humans. They also talk about it from the framework of it being not a matter of choice, but rather these are the systems we are born with, they are systems that exist in us, and they have specific roles and purposes. There is a reason each system is wired the way it is and they can serve us quite well in different circumstances. They language used is “it is not your fault”.

Now, in saying it’s not our fault leaves room for compassion and understanding, but another important point is that we still have a lot of ability to cultivate, grow, and develop certain systems. I like this because it’s saying: “yes we have this hardwiring to respond to certain things and this can serve us well and sometimes it can get in the way, but we have the ability to make some changes in that”.

​We can train our brain and help guide it to respond in ways that might be more helpful rather than harmful.

If you found this post helpful, spread it by emailing to a friend or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook- Thanks! Also, be sure to come back and check out Part II, where I’ll be talking about using our 5 senses to combat anxiety.

 

 

 


Chantal Côté (she/her) is a psychologist and teen life coach living in Calgary, Alberta. After over a decade in non-profit and community mental health, Chantal started Pyramid Psychology, a practice dedicated to supporting teens – a population she is constantly amazed by. Chantal is on a mission to help 100,000 teen girls (and their parents) build bulletproof mindsets so they can weather the ups and downs of life. As part of this goal, Chantal has had the privilege of speaking at various events – virtual and live – to support teens and parents.

Outside of this passion, Chantal is often in nature, writing poetry, playing ball hockey and hanging out with her loved ones.

Each week, Chantal writes a blog article in response to issues she hears from the parents and teens she connects with. If you have something you’d like to read more on – email ideas and questions to info@pyramidpsychology.com or DM us via Instagram or Facebook.