As you think, so you are. As you imagine, so you become.
Visualisation exercises aren’t just mystical: the effectiveness of visualisation has been well documented. Professional athletes mentally rehearse peak performances, and cancer patients use visualisation techniques to help regain their health.
I have spoken to many teens through my work with Enlighten Education who have had great success using visualisation exercises before bedtime, as part of a soothing ritual to help them unwind and settle for sleep. Teens often don’t sleep well – in fact, many of you are sleep deprived!
Developing positive bedtime routines helps you form new sleep patterns.
During these exercises, you relax and go on a guided imaginative journey. The aim is to put your body and mind in a state of calm. It’s a way of developing controlled breathing and imagination, and of promoting a positive outlook. When you take the time out to be calm and focus on your inner thoughts and your breath, you reinforce the connection between your mind and your body.
There are many types of visualisation exercises. Here, I offer a basic guided visualisation for you to try. It’s designed to help you face the daily stresses in your life – you might be worried about school exams or missing your old school. I recommend that you or someone else read the visualisation instructions out loud and make a recording that you can play back regularly to guide you through the exercise. Alternatively, you can ask a friend or family member to read the instructions to you as you do the exercise. The instructions should be read in a slow, soothing voice. The reader should pause regularly, allowing you to focus on what you can see, hear and feel. Calming music or sounds – such as gentle rain or the ocean – may be played in the background. A candle may be lit or essential oils burnt.
Visualisation exercises are best done in a quiet place where you can completely relax, lying flat on your back with your arms by your sides, or sitting comfortably with your shoulders back – not hunched – to allow for deep breathing. Wear loose clothing and make sure that you’re comfortable, neither too cold nor too warm. You may wish to use some of the affirmations that follow to create your own visualisation exercises.
When you dwell on your fears and anxieties, your thoughts have a physical impact on your body. Our nervous systems have difficulty distinguishing between a real danger, like a dog coming to attack us, and an imagined danger, like a school assignment that’s nearly due. If we mentally react to the assignment deadline like it’s a dangerous crisis, our body responds as if it’s preparing either to fight off the perceived danger or flee from it. This is called the ‘fight or flight’ response. There’s also a third stress response: freezing. We can literally be immobilised by our fears and anxieties.
The immediate physical effects of stress include increased heart rate, rapid and shallow breathing, a dry mouth and dilated pupils. Why does this happen? Temporary stress can be helpful – it can motivate us to overcome challenges, such as getting that assignment in on time. And if we’re in physical danger, stress makes our body respond by virtually shutting down non- essential functions, like digestion, and becoming tense and ready for action. But ongoing stress has serious health implications, including headaches, disrupted sleep, nightmares, increased or decreased appetite, fatigue and nervous indigestion. One of the most noticeable physical symptoms of stress is tension in your muscles.
Because your mind isn’t separate from your body, ongoing stress changes the way you feel and act, too. It can lead to an inability to concentrate, boredom, loss of willpower, poor time management, overreaction to mistakes, uncontrollable emotional outbursts and the desire to consume alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.
The following visualisation exercise lets you rehearse what it feels like to have the ability and desire to handle potentially stressful situations with calmness and a positive attitude. Regularly practising this exercise will help you develop new, more positive self-talk so you can respond calmly and optimistically to life’s inevitable challenges and setbacks. You can’t always control the events that you experience, but you can control how you respond to them.
In the first part of the exercise, you’ll relax your muscles and slow down your breathing, easing the physical symptoms of stress and putting you in a calm frame of mind to begin your visualisation.
Gently shut your eyes. Focus only on your breathing. You do not need to change your breathing, just become aware of your breath: in through your nose and out through your mouth. Long, slow, steady, deep breaths. Feel your chest rise and fall. Listen to the sound of your breath.
Although you will hear other sounds, simply notice them and let them fade from your attention. Focus on the sound of your own breathing. This is your time to relax, to feel good, to be still. As other thoughts enter your mind, let them pass. Focus only on the present and on your senses.
Visualise the toes on your left foot and imagine each one uncurling. Let go of all tension and feel each toe become soft and relaxed. Allow this feeling to travel along the sole of your foot to the heel. Now your entire left foot feels relaxed. Every joint is loose. And your breath is slow, long and deep. With each breath you feel more and more relaxed. Calmer.
Focus now on the lower half of your left leg. Feel it sink into the floor, relaxed. Feel this sensation spread up into your knee, which now loosens, and into your thigh. Your whole left leg is warm and relaxed. All you are focused on is your own body and the sound of your breath. You do not allow any other thoughts to disturb your calm. You just notice them and then let them go.
Bring your awareness to your right foot. Imagine each toe slowly uncurling. Focus on the muscles in your right foot, your lower leg and up into your thigh, until both legs are deeply relaxed.
There is absolutely no tension in your lower body. You feel good. You feel safe. Soften and release the muscles in your buttocks, too. You feel relaxed and warm.
Now visualise the fingers on your left hand opening. Feel each finger unclench and relax. Imagine each part of your hand softening. Allow this feeling to spread up into your wrist. Feel your hand and wrist loosen. Feel the sensation spread into your elbow. Into your shoulder. Feel your shoulder roll back and drop as you release any tension.
And now visualise this deep relaxation in the fingers of the right hand, the right wrist, the right elbow, the right shoulder.
Both left and right hands and arms are relaxed.
Focus now on your stomach. Feel the muscles in your abdomen soften.
Feel this wave of relaxation spread through your body, into your spine. Allow each vertebra in your spine to loosen. With each breath your body feels more, and still more, relaxed.
Focus now on your neck. Release any tension. Now your face. Feel each line in your brow smoothen. Your lips and teeth gently part as the mouth softens, too. No tightness.
Your whole body is now completely relaxed. And you feel good. And you feel safe and warm.
Now, imagine you have just woken in the morning. The sunlight falls from your window onto your face and fills you with a sense of calm. You feel protected.
The light spreads this warmth from your face right through your entire body. Become aware of being filled with a sense of joy. Bask in this golden, healing light.
Picture yourself getting out of bed and getting ready to go to school. You do not rush. You are organised. You are on time. You feel calm and in control.
You feel positive about the day ahead. You know you have all the skills you will need to complete your tasks for the day. You have faith in your abilities.
Take a moment to think about the skills and attributes you have that will ensure you have a successful day. What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing?
Picture yourself leaving for school.
Imagine now that you are about to begin a task you usually find difficult and stressful.
You may still feel some stress, but you know these feelings are not necessarily negative.
Stress can also be motivating and can encourage you to extend yourself.
You have no reason to fear the task before you, because you are prepared. You have set yourself up for success. What preparation did you do so that you can respond differently this time?
Visualise yourself engaged in the task, succeeding at it.
How does it feel to respond calmly and optimistically in this situation?
And as you leave the experience and become focused again on your body in the here and now, take a moment to think about what you have learnt from this exercise.
Take a deep breath, open your eyes and come back to the present.
You may now wish to write about your observations. How might your life change if you face difficult situations more calmly and optimistically?
Affirmations are short, positive statements that can be used to boost strength or chart a new course in our lives. They also have profound effects on mental health and the development of resilience as they train us to focus on the positives rather than obsess over the negatives. Some people find it helpful to repeat an affirmation when they wake each morning, others when the going gets tough. Some like to write affirmations down and pin them up around their home. One mother sent me a picture of her bathroom mirror, on which she and her daughter write affirmations each week and say them whenever they look at themselves. How cool is that?
The key is focus and repetition. Most of us would agree that if you constantly use negative self-talk (‘I am so fat and ugly, no one will love me’) this has a negative impact on us. In fact, such dark thoughts can trigger devastating physical effects.
We need to understand, too, that focused, purposeful positive thoughts can have a similarly profound, yet healing, impact on us. This explains why positive affirmations are also used frequently in therapy for mental illnesses such us depression and anxiety.
It is important to note, however, that using positive affirmations should not prohibit negative feelings, nor does it imply we need to walk around in a constant state of smiling, hugging bliss! There is nothing wrong with feeling sad, angry or frustrated. Feelings are not good or bad; they just are what they are. Grief, anger and anxiety are all important emotions to experience, and we need them for guidance. For example, if someone is treating you badly and you feel angry about it, anger is giving you the message that it’s not OK for someone to treat you that way. Psychologist Jacqui Manning explained it to me this way: ‘Think of your heart as a bus, and your emotions as the passengers. Allow the whole spectrum of emotions on your bus – that is, don’t kick anyone off – but don’t let anger or anxiety hop in the driver’s seat (at least, not for long!).’
Here are some affirmations that might help guide you:
I surround myself with positive people and attract good friends into my life.
I appreciate everything I have and show gratitude to the people around me.
I enjoy learning new things.
I have the potential to achieve and I have faith in my abilities.
I ask for help when I need it.
I listen with love, respect and an open heart.
On new beginnings:
I am willing to try new things.