By William F. Northey, Phd
A couple of studies that I recently came across got me thinking. Both were about the power of visualization. The first study looked at participant’s ability to shoot free throws. Now you might say, what the heck do the ability to shoot a basketball have to do with behavioral health? Patience!
After determining a baseline for a group of basketball players, the researchers randomly assigned them to one of three groups. The first group practiced their free throws 20 minutes a day, the second group was told to visualize making free throws for 20 minutes a day (but no real practice was allowed), and the third group did neither (no practice or visualization). As you might expect the group that practiced everyday improved their free throw shooting by 24% and the group that did not practice or visualize had no improvement. So how do you think the visualization group did? They improved…wait for it…23%. Pretty amazing, but wait there’s more.
In another study conducted by the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute the researchers asked healthy participants to wear an elbow to finger cast on their arm for 4 weeks. Half of the participants were instructed to visualize contracting their immobilized wrist as if they were their arm against a really hard surface. As in the basketball study, the participants who visualized contracting their wrists had twice as much movement when the cast was removed as did those participants who did not practice and their voluntary muscle activation returned more quickly. Clearly, everything we do, even physical activity, has a mental component and our brains don’t seem to know (or care) if we actually do an activity or just visualizing doing it. It is literally mind over matter.
So what can visualization do for our clients? A lot, I think.
First, I wonder how many times our clients (and maybe ourselves) imagine doing things that are not good for us — whether that is being depressed, using drugs or alcohol, or creating a worse case scenario in our head. People have long talked about having a positive outlook, but maybe it is more than convincing ourselves that things are going well. Maybe if we think about it enough our brains actually create the positivity we imagine. Conversely, I wonder if all of the times we ask clients to think about the negative things in their lives, if we are not inadvertently contributing to a recurrence of the negative impact of those events (over and over). I’m not suggesting that we should not talk about things that are negative or even painful, but maybe we should spend some more time helping clients visualize positive experiences and helping clients’ brains garner the benefits of that sort of visualization.
Mindfulness is very popular right now in behavioral health and often affirmations are a part of the mindfulness process. What if we helped our clients with some affirmations that might change the way they think, feel and act? What if we visualized being more whole, complete, wonderful? Maybe we can help our clients imagine what it would be like when they have peace in their lives? What if they focused on how they might have peace and harmony in their families or with themselves? Maybe if they can visualize it they can make it come true. Here are a few affirmations that I borrowed from the Mind Your Business Podcast (http://mindyourbusinesspodcast.com/).
- I have the power to do incredible things.
- My life makes a difference in this world.
- I am always evolving, ever unfolding.
- I always take inspired action toward my goal.
- I am grateful for this moment and find joy in all I do.
- I am powerful, capable, confident and inspired.
- I am worthy of true success.
- I am inspired and have the power to accomplish everything I need to do today.
- I take pleasure in what I do.
- My thoughts create my reality
- I am proud of my achievements.
- My mind has unlimited power.
Try a few of these out and see how they fit. If people have trouble with these, that might be the great place to start a conversation about what is getting in the way to feel affirmed.