Robert F. Mulllen, PhD
Subscriber numbers generate contributions that support scholarships for workshops.
This is a draft of Chapter Twenty-Five – “Affirmative Visualization” in ReChanneling’s upcoming book on moderating social anxiety disorder and its comorbidities. We present this as an opportunity for readers to share their ideas and constructive criticism – suggestions gratefully considered and evaluated as we work to ensure the most beneficial product to those with emotional dysfunction (which is all of us to some degree). Please forward your comments in the form provided below.
You are more productive by doing fifteen minutes of visualization
than from sixteen hours of hard labor.” — Abraham Hicks
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. Affirmative Visualization is graded exposure ― systematic desensitization that reduces stress and anxiety in a structured, less threatening environment. The process is another powerful tool in recovery from social anxiety and its common comorbidities, especially 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.
Space is Limited
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, or tactile impression. 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, and 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 become 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 actually 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.
That correlates to our subconscious which cannot differentiate an imagined situation from a real one. Whatever we visualize or imagine, our subconscious believes it is actually happening.
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.
Like our positive personal affirmations, Affirmative Visualization is a mental exercise that is most effective through repetition. Let us imagine a hypothetical feared-situation: You have to make a presentation to your classmates. You’ve never given a successful public speech before, but you have identified the reasons for your fears. Now recreate the scenario in your mind, just as you have planned it. Close your eyes and use your imagination to experience the entirety of the situation. Use all your senses as you walk yourself through the steps you have created in your strategy plan.
See the room. You know the students and the instructor and where they are positioned. What are they wearing? Feel the atmosphere of the room. Is it warm, crowded, joyful? What does it smell like? Is the air stale or clean from the open windows? You have already devised your strategy and the actions or measurable steps that will help achieve that goal. You know how you are presenting yourself – your quality of character, your attitude, and how you are dressed for maximum effect. Find three stationary items in the room that you can focus on when you feel stressed or that rush of cortisol and adrenaline. You have created diversions in your presentation – a PowerPoint that you will transfer to a screen, and a laser pointer. Focus on your character and persona. Interact with small talk and slow talk. Imagine utilizing all the tools of recovery.
Allow for the unexpected – that is why you have prepared distractions and diversions. Give your presentation as you have rehearsed it a number of times. Grasp or lean on the podium. Work your PowerPoint and use the laser to emphasize the information on the slides.
Visualize the event and its successful outcome as many times as you can. Imagine each detail, your attitude, and the reaction of the audience. Mentally practice your walk, gestures, and posture. Use your slow talk for added emphasis. Imagine the influx of cortisol and adrenaline dissipating every time you take a deep breath or speak with practiced self-assurance. Set reasonable expectations. Not only will you exceed them just by showing up and speaking in front of the class but because you are well-rehearsed, and have a plan that covers every contingency.
Through repetition, your subconscious mind has already witnessed a productive and successful presentation. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, you will anticipate, think, speak, and behave in a way that is consistent with your newly formed self-belief that you are more than capable of achieving your goal with energy, enthusiasm, and panache.
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 intent the 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.
* * *
Comments. Suggestions. Constructive Criticism.
* * *
WHY IS YOUR SUPPORT SO IMPORTANT? ReChanneling develops and implements programs to (1) moderate symptoms of emotional dysfunction and (2) pursue personal goals and objectives – harnessing our intrinsic aptitude for extraordinary living. Our paradigmatic approach targets the personality through empathy, collaboration, and program integration utilizing scientific and clinically practical methods including proactive neuroplasticity, cognitive-behavioral modification, positive psychology, and techniques designed to regenerate self-esteem. All donations support scholarships for groups, workshops, and practicums.