Meditation and Visualization for Mental Health

Meditation and visualization practices are used by millions of people worldwide to better their mental health. They can be used to reduce stress, ease pain, send good thoughts to people near and far, or to help you manifest your goals. However, if you’re new to the meditation and visualization, the practices can be intimidating. Here is a brief overview to get you started.

What is meditation?

Meditation is a mindfulness technique that trains attention and awareness and helps a practitioner to achieve a state of mental clarity and emotional calm and stability. It calms the nervous system in a restful and restorative way and allows the body to heal from both mental and physical stress. As you get better at the practice of meditation, you can move into a deeper state of relaxation. “What gets in our way when it comes to our mental health is our thoughts and our moment-to-moment experience of things that happened in the past or the fear of something that might happen in the future,” explains psychotherapist Dr. Jamie Wasserman, who teaches meditation. “Meditation helps you pay attention to thoughts and feelings from the past and future so you can move them out of the way and live in the present moment.”

What is visualization?

During a visualization practice, you focus on something specific, like an event, a person, or a goal. For example, and Olympic runner might imagine him or herself crossing the finish line in first place. Holding an image in your mind and imagining your outcome becoming reality can actually reprogram your nervous system and create new expectations that counter negative feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. When you imagine yourself achieving your goals, your brain comes to believe you have already done those things, which makes you feel more confident and able to attain those goals in reality. Unlike meditation, visualization requires you to be alert and aware and to use your imagination to have a full sensory experience. “The difference is that in meditation, you relinquish negative thoughts about the past and future, and in a visualization, you put a pin in something you want to move towards,” explains Wasserman. “We have no control over what thoughts come into our minds, but we do have control over which ones we follow and which ones we use as information about ourselves, and visualization counters the negative thoughts.”

What is a visualization meditation?

Adding visualization to your meditation allows you to better direct your calm, relaxed and focused mind toward specific outcomes. Visualization meditations can help to increase athletic performance, reduce anxiety and depression, improve relaxation, increase compassion for yourself and others, relieve pain, improve sleep and boost self-confidence. However, for visualization meditations to work, they must be very detailed and specific. “When you choose a goal or a future state that you want to be true, you must visualize every step along the way that will help you accomplish that goal, so you incorporate those behaviors and actions in your mind so you know what to do when you are getting this done,” Wasserman says. “For example, if you want to find love, you must visualize the perfect person and what it feels like to be with them, so when the wrong person comes along, you know, ‘this isn’t it.’ The more aspects you incorporate into a visualization, the more you are driving the very specific success that you want.”

Meditation and Visualization Techniques

All meditations start the same way: by getting comfortable. This could be in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, sitting cross-legged on the floor, or lying flat with the ankles turned out and the palms up, like savasana at the end of a yoga class. Meditation and visualization are skills that will improve over time; don’t worry if you’re not “good at it” on your first try, or if the session doesn’t go as you planned, or if your mind wanders. Start with just a few minutes of whatever exercise you choose, and build up as you progress. Everyone has a different sweet spot; it could be 10 minutes, or it could be 60. Do what feels good.

Examples of Visualization Meditations

Color Breathing

  • Color breathing can promote relaxation and a sense of peace.
  • Imagine a color that relaxes you.
  • Visualize the color you’ve chosen.
  • As you breath slowly in and out, think about the color and what it represents for you.
  • With each inhale, imagine the color washing over you, filling your body from head to toe.
  • With each exhale, imagine negative emotions leaving your body and being replaced by your special color.

Compassion Meditation

  • Compassion meditations allow us to be kinder to ourselves and others, which leads to healthier relationships.
  • Visualize a friend or loved one, or even a pet or someone you don’t personally know, to whom you want to extend love, kindness, compassion or support. And yes, this person can be yourself!
  • As you breath slowly in and out, think about how you feel about this person.
  • Imagine challenges, troubles or pain the person might be facing.
  • Then, focus on the feelings of peace, calmness, joy, happiness or healing that you want to share with them, and imagine these feelings radiating towards them like light.
  • With each exhale, imagine the light enveloping them.
  • If you’re directing this meditation for yourself, imagine your body filling up with light on each exhale.

Muscle Relaxation Meditation

  • Relieving physical tension can release emotional tension and improve your mood and quality of sleep.
  • This exercise is best done lying down.
  • Take a moment to simply relax, both physically and mentally.
  • Work top to bottom, bottom to top, or in any order that makes sense to you.
  • On an inhale, tense your toes and feet and hold it for five seconds. As you exhale, release the tension.
  • On the next inhale, squeeze your calves, hold for five seconds, and release on an exhale.
  • Then, tense the quads, the abs, the chest, the arms, hands and fingers, each in turn, and let them relax, imagining them melting into the floor.
  • Rest for a few inhales and exhales between muscle groups.
  • Take notice of areas that feel particularly tight or areas in which you have pain, and visualize that tightness and pain leaving your body.

“Happy Place” Meditation

  • Going to your “happy place” can help you relax, relieve stress and feel calmer and more at peace.
  • As you slowly inhale and exhale, imagine a place that makes you feel content and at peace with the world.
  • Engage all of your senses. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell or taste? What and how do you feel? Though your eyes are closed, is there bright light beyond your eyelids, or is there darkness? Be as specific as you can.
  • Continue to inhale and exhale and feel the emotions you feel when you are in your happy place.

Goals Meditation

  • As you slowly inhale and exhale, imagine a goal you want to achieve.
  • See yourself achieving this goal.
  • Imagine how it would feel to achieve your goal.
  • Be as detailed as possible, imagining how and when you will achieve your goal, who you will be with and where it will take place.
  • Attach a positive mantra to your inhales an exhales, like “I can do this,” or “Success will be mine.” Use it to push out any doubts that might creep in.
  • Focus on your mantra and your visualization of your success.

Practice Makes Progress

Remember, it’s called a meditation and visualization “practice,” and practice makes progress, not perfection. Like any new skill, it takes time to improve. But even just a small amount of time set aside each day to slow down, focus on your breath and visualize the best version of yourself and the world will go a long way to improving your mental health.