In my field of work, I see several clients struggling with chronic stress and anxiety. These individuals often find themselves pulled into habitual and problematic thinking patterns, which usually include (in cognitive behavioural therapy terms) catastrophic thinking, worrying and over-planning, should-ing, rumination, black and white thinking, and mind reading. Because thinking in this way has become quite automatic to the stressed or anxious individual, it can happen outside of their conscious awareness. Before realizing it, they become pulled into feeling bad as a result of what they’ve been thinking about, followed by thinking about how bad they feel, and finally experiencing further negative emotions as a result of their judgements. Layer upon layer of uncomfortable emotions arise until, for many, a state of panic develops, or what some of my clients call a “breakdown,” a “meltdown,” or a “complete loss of control.” In this state, the emotional mind becomes so dominant that the individual falls into a primitive way of existing, unable to grasp hold of their rational mind until they either completely exhaust themselves or the emotions simply pass.
As much as it doesn’t always feel like it’s possible to stop spiraling thoughts while they’re happening, we can train ourselves (over time and with some practice), to become our most reliable support person. One of my favourite exercises for pulling oneself out of the “downward spiral” is a visualization exercise that takes about 10 minutes to practice, but leaves one feeling calm, refreshed, and in much greater control.
Step 1 | Gather Awareness & Create Space
The first step involves recognizing when we’re “spiraling” to begin with. It’s only when we’re aware of what’s happening that we can consciously do something about it. What people don’t often realize is that, even in the state of intense negative emotions, we do have choice about whether to follow our experiences or not. Once we acknowledge our state of mind, we can give ourselves space from the thoughts and emotions themselves. This doesn’t mean denying or pushing them away, but rather taking a step back, like we’re watching them happen to us as an outside observer.
Step 2 | Fill the Space with Something New
After taking a few breaths, we can begin to fill the space that we’ve created, as it naturally wants to be filled again. If we don’t intentionally create something new to put in the space, however, old habitual patterns will seep back in (they are habitual, after all). If, on the other hand, we generate a helpful or peaceful thought instead, there won’t be as much room for the anxious thoughts anymore (we can’t think about two different things at the exact same time). Start by creating a picture in your mind of a place that you find relaxing. This can be somewhere you’ve travelled to, a favourite childhood place, or an imagined environment. Whatever scene you come up with, try to picture it in detail. Imagine that you’re sitting in your space, noticing what you see, hear, and smell all around you.
Step 3 | Visualize Yourself Tackling Problems in a New Way
Next, imagine that you can see a vision of your “ideal self” step into your chosen scene. Imagine this version of yourself is characterized by the things that are most important to you. As you “watch” yourself, you can see that you’re living in a way that you want to, guided by your values, morals, and principles. Notice that you have a smile on your face, that you are glowing, and that you are content with yourself and how you’re handling things. Then, reflect on the following questions:
What can you see your “ideal self” doing? What is he/she thinking and feeling? How is he/she behaving that allows you to be content with yourself? If this version of yourself could say anything to you right now, what would they want you to know?
Step 4 | Integrate Your New Thoughts & Feelings
Now, imagine that you can breathe in all of the positive attributes that you’ve just witnessed in your “ideal self.” The more you breathe in, the more these attributes begin to nourish and energize you. They absorb deep down into the core of your body, into who you are right now. Feel yourself become motivated to act in a way that’s consistent with the vision of yourself that you’ve created. Essentially, you are now an embodiment of your “ideal self.”
After a few moments, shift your focus back to your current surroundings. Check in with your body and take a few more breaths. Whenever you are ready, return to the rest of your day, taking with you all of the qualities that you’ve adopted during this practice, and approaching your stressors in a brand new light.