This article has been updated HERE
There are multiple psychological approaches to visualization. Covert Conditioning focuses on eliminating a bad habit by imaginary repetition of the behavior, e.g., smoking cigarettes ad nauseam. In Covert Modeling, we choose a positive role model to visually emulate. Covert Sensitization and Covert Extinction encourage repeated confrontation of our fears and apprehensions. Affirmative Visualization is graded exposure ― systematic desensitization that reduces stress and anxiety in a structured, less threatening environment. Affirmative Visualization (some experts call it imaginal exposure) is another viable tool in the recovery from social anxiety and its common comorbidities, including depression and substance abuse.
We label the process as Affirmative to emphasize the positivity of the visualizations to counteract our natural negative bias and the predisposition of the emotionally dysfunctional to set negative outcome scenarios due to life-consistent negative self-beliefs and images.
Affirmative Visualization is scientifically supported through studies and the neuroscientific understanding of our neural network. Positive personal affirmations (PPAs) are concise, predetermined, positive statements. Affirmative Visualizations are positive outcome scenarios that we mentally recreate by imagining or visualizing them. Both are underscored by the Laws of Learning, which explain what conditions must be present for learning (or unlearning) to occur and how to accelerate and consolidate the process through proactive neuroplasticity.
Through Affirmative Visualization, we envision behaving a certain way in a realistic scenario and, through deliberate repetition, attain an authentic shift in our behavior and perspective. It is a form of proactive neuroplasticity, and all the neural benefits of that science are accrued by visualization.
Our brain is in a constant mode of learning; it never stops realigning to information. It forms a million new connections for every input. Information includes experience, muscle movement, a decision, a memory, emotion, reaction, noise, tactile impression, a twitch. With each input, connections strengthen and weaken, neurons atrophy and others are born, learning replaces unlearning, energy dissipates and expands, beneficial hormones are neurally transmitted, functions shift from one region to another. Proactively stimulating our brain with deliberate, repetitive neural information utilizing Affirmative Visualization accelerates and consolidates learning (and unlearning), producing a correlated change in thought, behavior, and perspective. These changes becoming habitual and spontaneous over time.
Our brain provides the same neural restructuring when we visualize doing something or when we physically do it; the same regions of our brain are stimulated. Just as our neural network cannot distinguish between toxic and productive information, it also does not distinguish whether we are experiencing something or imagining it. Thinking about picking up our left hand is, to our brain, the same thing as literally picking up our left hand.
The thalamus is the small structure within our brain located just above the stem between the cerebral cortex and the midbrain. It has extensive nerve connections to both. All information passes through the thalamus and onto the millions of participating neurons. By visualizing an idea or performance repeatedly for an extended period, we increase activity in the thalamus and our brain responds as though the idea is a real object or actual happening.
Our thalamus makes no distinction between inner and outer realities. It does not distinguish whether we are imagining something or experiencing it. Thus, any idea, if contemplated long enough, will take on a semblance of reality. If we visualize a solution to a problem, the problem is systemically resolved because visualizing activates the cognitive circuits involved with our working memory.
Research shows that visualizing an event in advance improves our mental and physical performance. When we visualize what we want to achieve, we consciously source information that will improve our performance outcomes, dramatically improving the likelihood of success in the real situation.
We can visualize mitigating anxiety and performing better, or we can envision being a more empathetic or competent individual. Our neural repatterning will help us achieve those goals. The more we visualize with a clear intentthe more focused we become and the higher the probability of achieving our goal. It activates our dopaminergic-reward system, decreasing the neurotransmissions of anxiety and fear-provoking hormones, and accelerating and consolidating those that make learning more accessible. In addition, when we visualize, our brain generates alpha waves which, neuroscientists have discovered, can dramatically reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.