What Is Mental Imagery?

Beware of the daydreaming mind – what you create in there could stay with you for a lot longer than you think. The images and sensations that we all naturally create while we’re staring blankly out the bus window on the way home from work can have a surprising influence on our behaviour and the way we think about ourselves. You don’t even need to be aware that you’re doing it for it to work. And that goes for negative images and thoughts as well, which many of us experience way too often. So next time you have a moment alone, imagine yourself in a positive light, looking and acting as you’d like to be rather than the boring plogger your evil side likes to depict. “Much of how we are and what we do is dictated by images of our mind,” says Dr Lydia Ievleva, psychologist and author of the book Imagine: Using mental imagery to reach your full potential. “We tend to think, feel, and behave consistently with whatever self-image is most dominant at the time.

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We tend to recreate outer conditions to match our inner conditions. This explains how most lotto winners are in worse debt than ever within one year of their big win.” Using mental imagery deliberately to unlock your full potential has been employed with great success by athletes and actors and to treat patients recovering from trauma, but is underutilised by the rest of us, says Dr Ievleva. “For some reason, it hasn’t gained much traction for everyone in between – where there is so much more scope for application,” she says. “If you would prefer to be more in control over your destiny, and less victim to your unconscious fears, then you need to take better control over the images of your mind. Such that, rather than reacting to situations and events, you are in a stronger position of creating according to the script you’d prefer to operate from.” All this may sound a bit ‘new-agey’ but it’s actually based on solid science. “Neuroscience has demonstrated that mental imagery is a far more powerful technique than standard cognitive behavioural techniques that involve self-talk and affirmations,” says Dr Ievleva. “The reach of mental imagery extends far beyond words, and is the major portal of your brain for transformation and quantum leaping.”

WHAT IS MENTAL IMAGERY?

Mental imagery is also referred to as guided or creative imagery, visualisation or visual mental rehearsal (VMR). Mental imagery can draw on all the senses – including touch, smell and movement, not just the powerful visual sense, in order to conjure up an overall feeling. “Mental imagery is simply the use of your imagination to promote mental and physical health and may be used to enhance your performance in many areas of your life,” says Grant Brecht, sports psychologist for the Sydney Swans. “There are generally two parts to this process: the first is reaching a state of deep relaxation using breathing or muscle relaxation techniques. The second part is using imagery in your mind to see certain things that you would like to actually happen. This could involve relaxation imagery, healing imagery, pain control imagery and mental rehearsal to achieve well at a sporting goal, for instance. “Imagery can be very effective if practised regularly, in a manner that works for you and is used in conjunction with actual practice of strategies in real-life situations.” And don’t hold back on the detail. The more you include in your imagery, the more real it will seem and the more effective it’s likely to be. Your goal can be as simple or complex as you like. You might imagine yourself simply having the perfect day or visualise all the steps it takes for you to get to your ideal weight. You’re literally only limited by your imagination. “Notice how you feel, what you see, hear, and even smell,” says psychologist Deborah Farrell. “The best results are achieved by visualising the successful completion of all of the steps along the way to achieving your desired goal.”

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Mental imagery works by ‘tricking’ the mind (and consequently the body) into thinking it’s actually doing it. It’s called psychoneuromuscular theory, and it’s a practical joke that can work extremely well when performed well. “It refers to the fact that brain activity for mentally imagining an act and actually performing the act are very similar,” says Dr Ievleva. “We are now able to demonstrate this in the lab. Not only is the brain activity very similar, although far more pronounced when actually active, nerve firings are also in evidence in the muscle groups that would be involved in the activity.” Psychologically, mental imagery can also shape the way we think. “Neuroplasticity is the technical term for what is also referred to as cortical remapping, or brain remapping – the capacity of your nervous system to develop new neuronal connections,” says Dr Ievleva. “Previously automatic patterns that are resistant to change can be switched off by creating newer and more adaptive patterns to override the old. “This can only occur with mental practice that creates new neuronal pathways. Translated, this means you can rewrite your script. Whatever you imagine can become your new more preferred repertoire to replace the old.”

WHAT CAN IMAGERY DO FOR ME?

Mental imagery is a powerful tool but it does have its limitations and it does require focus to get it right. It’s not just a matter of thinking about something you want and getting it – otherwise we’d all be millionaires and Brad Pitt would have a very busy schedule. Performers in sport and on stage have excelled with the use of mental imagery. But aren’t all our lives a performance, even for us regular folk? “Much of our life is a performance – sometimes simply to get out of bed in the morning,” says Dr Ievleva. “Going home for the holidays and maintaining your equanimity around difficult family members, or going to work each day and dealing with difficult clients or colleagues – it’s not about being the best but about becoming your best self.” But can anybody use mental imagery, or is it restricted to creative types? “Some people have more talent than others,” says Dr Ievleva. “But just like any skill, it can be strengthened and developed with practice. Think of it like a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it gets.” Mental imagery has proved particularly effective in counteracting low self-esteem, stress and anxiety. “Mental imagery is one of the best tools for boosting self-confidence,” says Dr Ievleva. “The beauty of it is that it provides the opportunity to essentially gain experience being comfortable and successful. “By engaging in mental imagery, you can also become more aware of competing images that interfere and sabotage you in pursuit of your goals.”

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