I am a very visual person. I learn best from being shown what to do and I have a creative mind. Without really realising it, I began to use visualisation to help me get by in my life with chronic illness. For me that encompassed deep breathing and with every exhale I visualised my breath blowing out tension and pain from my muscles. I visualised them looking relaxed and feeling less pain. At the end of the exercise, even if I spent just 10 minutes doing this, I could guarantee I felt better. I also use visualisation when eating nourishing foods or taking supplements. I literally visualise these radiating good throughout my body, helping and supporting healing. I don’t know if this actually does anything but it’s nice to think it might help it along.
I know many people get annoyed and put up a block when there is talk of the mind and chronic illness. Rest assured I am not implying that our symptoms are psychosomatic– I too have heard that one too many times– rather I’m referring to how we can empower ourselves by changing the way we think. I do not mean simply keeping a positive mind frame, though that of course helps, I am talking about employing coping techniques that actually have the potential to evoke biochemical changes in our body.
I have been exploring this concept more with Courtney through my health coaching sessions. Courtney challenged me to use a different strategy during the times where I feel I am struggling to cope– those moments when my symptoms feel overwhelming. In those situations most of us think about how difficult our situation is or our mind may wander to contemplate how on earth we are going to make it through the day.
The problem with doing the above is that a negative mind only helps to make us feel worse and concentrating on the problem does nothing to help us feel better. Replaying the struggle over and over in your mind only serves to make you feel it more. Personally, I stepped away from that and tend to focus on doing actions that help me to feel better. This could be resting, deep breathing, stretching or simply using distraction. Courtney suggested I continue with my current coping strategies but really concentrate on visualisation more.
You might be thinking “how is that going to help?” Well the mind is actually a pretty amazing tool and visualisation has the potential change your physiology. Yes, really. It sounds a bit out there and totally whack but it’s true. It’s actually really fascinating! There was even a study done where one group exercised and another group simply visualised exercising. The group who did the exercise increased muscle mass by 30%. The group who visualised the exercise saw a 22% increase in muscle mass. How crazy is that?! Check out this video from ASAP science, which explains what’s going on:
So how can this help if you have chronic illness? If you visualise doing something you enjoy or focus on the way you felt at a time in the past where you felt really good, this can actually change your biochemistry and lead to you feeling those feelings. It sounds totally crazy but doing something and visualising it actually uses the same motor and sensory programs in the brain. So I challenge you to use this to your advantage and positively change the way you handle things.
Not everyone is the best at visualising images in their mind and it can take a lot of practice. But once you have mastered it, it’s a strategy you can employ anywhere at any time and it will truly change how you feel physically. You might be at a loss thinking about what to visualise. Here are a few things you could focus on, as suggested to me by Courtney:
1) Focus on someone you truly love. Think of that person and notice the feelings you experience. You want to really focus on that. Think of it as though you are turning up the volume on that feeling so it radiates loudly through your body. Now imagine you are sitting in the cinema watching yourself up on a huge screen feeling this love. What is it you notice about yourself? Perhaps it’s a soft look to your eye, a smile on your face, slow deep breathing. Do you feel lighter?
2) Think of something you have previously accomplished that made you feel amazing. It doesn’t matter if it is something you no longer do, so long as you remember how it felt– it’s the feeling of doing it that you are going to be concentrating on. Really focus on how you felt when you did that activity and turn the volume on that up loud. Same as before, imagine yourself on a big screen and pay attention to the little details.
There’s no right or wrong answer on what to imagine, so long as you felt really good and you are able to tune into that feeling. I use two: I imagine myself in the hot tub with my husband and friends, feeling super relaxed and happy (as we were on our staycation in July). I see myself sitting there, relaxed, no tension, smile on my face. I smell the fresh air and feel the bubbles relaxing my body. The other I use goes back a long time to a day where I somehow miraculously managed to run half way around the park. I imagine myself energised, smiling and happy with the wind blowing on my face.
I have used this strategy a lot over the past couple of weeks and it really helps. I feel so much better for doing it. As an example, my friends got married last week and attending their wedding was the most I have done in over a year. It was a big deal for me being able to attend. There were moments during the day where I felt like I was not coping. Without anyone realising I employed these visualisation techniques and they absolutely worked for me and helped me to work through those moments.
You might be thinking this sort of thing doesn’t appeal to you. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide if you want to try it. I would strongly encourage trying it and sticking with it– like I said it can take practise. At the end of the day, even if it doesn’t work in the way I have described, surely it is better to think about the “good times” than focus on how terrible you are feeling or how difficult your symptoms are?
What do you think? Is it something already use or are you open to trying?
Photography credit: Death to the Stock Photo