By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 27 January 2015)
People often trigger panic attacks by visualizing catastrophic events or outcomes (which are usually highly unlikely). Unfortunately, the body responds to a visualization of disaster with the same surge of adrenaline that it would have in a truly dangerous situation, and because there is no real danger to escape or fight, that unused adrenaline wreaks havoc with our minds and bodies. If this happens over and over, the panic attack itself becomes the object of fear, and visualizing having a panic attack can trigger a real panic attack in a horrible self-reinforcing cycle.
How to Use Visualization to Reduce Anxiety
Our bodies often can’t tell the difference between what we imagine and what is actually happening. This illustrates the great power of the mind over the body, which can be harnessed to create more positive outcomes using visualization techniques.
There are many different types of visualization exercises. A common technique is to imagine a calming environment, giving it rich detail that appeals to all the senses – sights, sounds, smells, textures, and even tastes, if appropriate. With regular practice, this safe place can be quickly and easily invoked to reduce anxiety.
There are other useful visualization techniques as well – for example, imagining a feared situation and picturing yourself coping really well. For example, if you’re afraid of flying, you could imagine yourself waiting for a plane and feeling happy about your trip, getting on board, and then having a calm and uneventful journey. If you’re nervous about an upcoming public speech you need to make (for example, a work or school presentation), you could picture yourself doing an excellent job and the audience responding positively.
Ideally, when you engage in visualization, you’ll be in a pleasant, quiet space (a room you like or an attractive outdoor setting), wearing comfortable clothing, and sitting or lying down in a relaxing pose. Some people find that listening to soothing music enhances the experience. For best results, turn off the phone and anything else that is likely to create a distraction and engage in slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing.
Don’t Underestimate Your Strength
Anxious people nearly always underestimate their ability to cope with stress, pressure, hardship, or loss. Visualizing yourself coping effectively in difficult, scary, or otherwise unpleasant situations will increase your ability to cope and reduce your body’s sense of threat.
Visualizing effective coping also tends to be more realistic as well. People often surprise themselves with how well they manage in an unimaginable crisis.
Amanda Ripley, while researching her book, The Unthinkable, looked into the ways in which people behave during life-threatening situations such as terrorist attacks and plane crashes. She found that people rarely descend into panic and hysteria – in fact, they tend to be calm, courteous, and helpful toward others in a crisis.
Free Visualization and Guided Imagery Resources
The University of Houston-Clear Lake offers a number of free resources for visualization. These online audio guides include visualizations of calming natural settings and visualization exercises designed to target specific problems such as low self-esteem, social anxiety, fear of public speaking, anger, poor body image, and test-related anxiety.
For more anxiety reductions strategies and free resources, see the main Natural Anxiety and Panic Treatments page.
- Robinson, L.; Segal, R., MA; Segal, J., PhD; & Smith, M., MA. (2012). “Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief.” HelpGuide.org.
- The Anxiety-Free Child Program. (2011). “Using Visualization for Treating Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and Phobias.” AnxietyFreeChildren.com.
- Weinstock, L., & Gilman, E. (1998). Overcoming Panic Disorder. Contemporary Books, Chicago.