Before starting my therapeutic bodywork practice, when people talked about visualization, I thought of two things: Buddhist monks and Jim Carey....sometimes all rolled into one
Some people were zealots about visualization, others were skeptics. Since I didn’t have experience with it, I didn’t know what to make of it. That was the case until two things happened: (1) some new research came out and (2) I had some personal experience with it.
Recent neuroscience research has helped show how the body and mind work together. That new understanding has helped me see how visualization may be used effectively as a tool to help create physiological change – both for myself and for my clients.
We’ll get into the research, but let’s start with experience rather than stay at the abstract.
Here’s a personal example from practice that I think illustrates how this issue appears and how we can use visualization to address it. This happened this week while working with a client I will call Steve.
Steve had come in primarily for shoulder mobilization and stabilization work. We had done a lot of bodywork to open his shoulder and incorporated some strength exercises like kettlebell presses to help create stability around the shoulder joint. It was, for most people, the typical way they change the physiology of their body – combine bodywork with exercise to open and strengthen the tissue.
Steve came in very stressed out. He sat in the chair, buried his face in his hands, and said, “I’m just exhausted. I don’t think I have the energy to do any work today.” He proceeded to tell me what set him off. He’d been in intense meetings all day - meeting with clients, his boss, and then people he supervised. It had been non-stop. He’d managed to get through the day well until he walked back, mentally exhausted, into his office and saw something that pushed him over the edge.
Before getting on the table, he agreed to play along in an exercise, so I asked him to go through the following visualization.
First, I asked him to get a clear visual of the stress and describe what that felt like in his body when he felt “pushed over the edge”.
- He felt his stress tip over the edge as he walked into his office and saw a desk full of papers, the red light on his phone blinking with unanswered messages, and then he heard the dreaded Outlook “bing” that signals new e-mail was hitting his Inbox. It was clear work had been piling up all day and he would have several hours just to dig out of the backlog.
- He said then he felt completely overwhelmed with work and that his body just shut down.
- He described the “shut down” feeling like his heart was racing, he was breathing shallowly into his chest that caused a clenching in his chest; and
- He felt tense all throughout his neck and jaw.
With that image clearly in his mind, I asked him to imagine a time when he felt incredibly relaxed and without burdens. Once he thought of an experience when he was relaxed, I encouraged him to get as detailed as possible connecting with each detail and remembering what it felt like.
For Steve, he went back to the trip he took right before his first child was born. He and his wife were on a beach in Hawaii. Among other sensations, he described
- the warm, blond grains of sand moving through his toes as he sat in a beach chair and dug his feet in and out of the sand;
- the soft, gentle rhythm of the waves breakingoff the coast, and
- the condensation from the cold glass that held his cocktail dripping down the outsides of his fingers.
After he felt he had fully described the image, I asked him to notice what was happening in his body… he described what I could see externally, which included
- His heart rate had slowed down
- He was breathing more deeply and into his stomach rather than just up into his chest
- He felt cooler (for me his face was no longer flushed)
- He smiled for the first time since entering the office and his jaw had relaxed.
At this point, the skeptics kick in and think…..riiiiiiiight. Why would an image from ten years ago actually have a real, physiological affect on his body now?
It’s a great question. Before this neuroscience had access to visual imaging like fMRIs, there wasn’t much access to the how and why. People would have to take that story on faith that Steve’s body actually changed and either remained believers on faith and experience, or skeptics.
Here’s what happens in our bodies.
Everywhere we go, our minds and bodies create maps – essentially charting where we are, how we got there, what the place is like, etc. Those maps are stored in our memories to help us navigate the world safely and efficiently (this is the way to my house; this neighborhood is dangerous at night; etc.).
When we think of memory, we typically only think of the image - like a 2-D visual of an event in our lives. While our memories can include visual images, they also contain imprints of our physiological and emotional states present during that memory. In other words, our memories include time, place and what our bodies felt like at the time those memories occurred. As a result, our brain links an emotional and physical condition with the event. All of that becomes part of the memory.
So, when Steve enters that messy office his mind and his body are mapping the environment. Sensory information tells him he has tons of work to do (red light, piles of paper, email sounds) and he feels the stress associated with that backlog of work. His memory of that experience includes the visual image, place and that feeling of extreme stress.
How does a memory include time, places and feelings?
In all of our brains, including Steve’s, the hippocampus plays a major role in creating those maps and the memories that go along with them. Among other functions, the cells within the hippocampus play a vital role in spatial navigation (literally, where we are, where we were, and how we got there) as well as the creation of memory (both long and short term). The hippocampus does not, however, work alone.
The hippocampus is located in the limbic system, which is called the emotional center of our brain. The limbic system contains key structures that help us process and become aware of feelings and emotions. Within the limbic system, the hippocampus sits next to the amygdala, which plays a particularly important role in controlling how we respond to stressful and fearful situations.
As a general rule of thumb in neuroscience, structures that are close together in the brain often work together since the communication lines are short and efficient. The hippocampus follows this rule.
The hippocampus directly communicates with its neighbor, the amygdala as well as the hypothalamus, which helps coordinate our body’s automatic physiological responses to a stimulus whether it’s stress (that triggers a fight or flight response i.e. rapid breathing, increased heart rate) or peace (that triggers decreases in breathing, heart rate and muscle tension)).
As a result, this little neighborhood in the limbic system works together to create detailed maps that become part of our short and long term memory. These memories include highly detailed and visual images of the time and place, as well as imprints of what we felt like physically and emotionally. In fact, the stronger the emotion (both positive and negative), the more vivid and detailed the memory. 
Why would the mind and body work this way?
One of the major reasons is to help us survive.
This process happens on an unconscious, automatic basis that doesn’t involve rational thought or intentional decision-making. That’s an incredibly adaptive and useful response that has helped countless generations survive pretty tough environmental and social conditions.
Survival may seem dramatic in Steve’s situation, so let’s ground it in something more extreme but still realistic.
Imagine walking down your street and your neighbor’s dog is barking at you aggressively and swatting at the fence. Suddenly, the fence breaks and your neighbor’s dog attacks you. You hold up your arms to defend yourself and the dog bites your arm. You have to go to the hospital to get stitches and shots.
The next time you see that dog your body will almost certainly respond with fear and the physiological response typical of the sympathetic nervous system – that fight or flight response that includes shortness of breath, increased heart rate, etc.  The dog hasn’t attacked you again, but your mind and body remember the scene, understand the this dog is likely to attack, and put you on high alert to protect against another attack – heart rate elevated, muscles tense and ready to run or fight off an attack as you walk quickly by the fence. It’s a coordinated effort between the mind and body (images, emotions, and physiological changes) to help you protect yourself.
There are two interesting, additional elements about how our memory affects our physiology.
First, brain scans have shown that your body will provide the same stress response by simply recalling that event– you don’t even have to see the dog again in person.
Second, research has also shown that your friend would experience the same physiological changes (stress response) if you had simply told them the dog was dangerous – even if he had never seen the dog before.
As a result, the memory or image alone can activate physiological change – even if the event is in the past OR we’ve never actually experienced the event ourselves.
While we may wish the sound of our Inbox filling didn’t increase our stress hormones (and this study shows that it can do just that by increasing cortisol levels), it’s a good thing we have this mechanism. We probably wouldn’t be here if our ancestors went up to every saber-tooth tiger they saw to see if it was nice and wanted to play. Thankfully, one guy made that mistake and then everyone who saw it went and told their friends.
You don’t have to face a saber-toothed tiger to see how this little hippocampus neighborhood alliance works. I’d wager most of us have already experienced this phenomenon in mild form as we hear a song on the radio or drive past our old elementary school and experience images and feelings from our past – pleasant or stressful.
So what? Why should we care?
If we understand that our memories (working with our hippocampus and amygdala) have imprints of time, space, and feeling - literally how our body felt when we saw that dangerous dog or were sitting on the beach, then we can access the memories and that physiological state at any time.
That can be an incredibly powerful tool if we want to feel differently. All we have to do is connect with a strong memory.
For Steve – this tool was used for stress relief.
That visualization helped him slow down his breathing and heat rate and decrease muscle tension. It was as important in creating physiological change in Steve’s body (heart rate, breathing, muscle tension) as those kettlebell presses were in creating stability in his shoulder.
You can imagine that this doesn’t just work for stress relief. Others may want to pump themselves up – (like right before a game or a race)....or be the best Pet Detective they can be...
The point is that powerful experiences and memories are inside each one of us. The more fully and deeply we can connect with these memories to regain that body-felt sense of the experience, the more powerful those memories can be in initiating physiological changes we’re looking for.
 Phelps, Elizabeth A. "Current Opinion in Neurobiology 2004, 14:198–202." pg. 199. Also found here (http://www.psych.nyu.edu/phelpslab/papers/04_CON_V14.pdf
 Ibid, pg. 200.
 Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, pg. 95.
 Phelps, Elizabeth A. "Current Opinion in Neurobiology 2004, 14:198–202." pg. 200. Also found here (http://www.psych.nyu.edu/phelpslab/papers/04_CON_V14.pdf