Part one of this series can be read HERE
An audio version of this article is available HERE
Before introducing visualisation, I want to make it clear that when attempting to overcome anxiety and build confidence in specific activities, tasks, or areas of life, there is no substitute for real life practice, as outlined in the confidence cycle in part one of this series on confidence. However, visualisation can be a very powerful additional tool when used correctly.
Visualisation is sometimes called imagery, mental rehearsal, or mental practice, and it refers to the creating or recreating of an experience in the mind. The process involves constructing or recalling from memory, pieces of information stored from experience, and shaping these pieces into meaningful images.
It is like playing a film in your mind of a goal, activity, or task you intend to undertake. As an example, a tennis player might use visualisation by mentally rehearsing their serve in detail before playing match, or visualising a previously effective and winning performance before going on court.
MRI scans have indicated the brain doesn’t distinguish between an imagined and an actual experience, so preparing for a challenge using visualisation can be a very useful tool to use before stepping out and practising learned skills in the real world. Let’s look more closely at how visualisation can be used in conjunction with the confidence cycle.
1. Visualising future success:
Visualising what success looks like can motivate us to start and continue the work of practising skills. Imagining a successful end goal can keep us in touch with our values, while also helping to keep us motivated when problems arise, things get difficult, or life is uncomfortable. It can also be a tool to keep us focused on where we are heading and why, clarifying our objectives.
When I went through difficulties during the writing of my PhD thesis, I often visualised what completing the PhD would look like for me, the career opportunities it would bring, and the security it would provide for my family. I’d try to picture how that would look and feel. In particularly uncomfortable times I would visualise myself on the stage at graduation, shaking the hand of the vice-chancellor as I received my certificate, and I’d imagine my completed and bound PhD thesis on a shelf in my office.
2. Visualising challenges:
Mentally imagining the step-by-step process of a challenging future task or activity has a number of benefits. As we said, the brain can’t tell the difference between a real and imagined experience, so going through a challenging task in detail can be excellent preparation.
Welsh rugby union player Leigh Halfpenny would often prepare for his goal-kicking by spending time visualising the process in his hotel room before the game; imagining the crowd, the tension, various kicking distances and angles, going through every single motion he would do for a real kick. I would often do the same before important talks or lectures I had to deliver (not as glamorous as kicking the winning points for Wales, I know). If possible, I would go to the actual room of the talk some hours, days, or weeks beforehand so I could see the exact environment, and I’d imagine how it would feel full of people. If I didn’t have access to the room or hall, I’d try to find photos of it online. Often before interviews or talks I’d check how the street and building looked on Google Maps, and imagine walking into the building in preparation.
Visualising challenges in this way can also prepare us for mistakes, or things going wrong. The Olympic record holding swimmer, Michael Phelps, often visualised his goggles filling with water, a competitor doing better than expected, or losing count of his strokes, and would then go through the process of how he would react, training himself to think clearly under pressure. His visualised scenarios sometimes came true and as he had already rehearsed them in his mind, he was able to deal with them calmly and effectively.32 We can use this same technique in various challenging and anxiety-inducing contexts; including public speaking, job interviews, difficult conversations, and physical challenges.
3. Visualising past successes:
When feeling anxious about an upcoming difficult situation, activity, or challenge, it can also be beneficial to put them into context and get a more realistic perspective by recalling previously similar challenges you may have overcome in the past. As an academic I sometimes had to do live media interviews and often found myself turning down opportunities to discuss my research on radio or television out of fear of making a mistake or embarrassing myself. However, at this point I had done some good live interviews, so in preparation for media appointments I’d remind myself I’d successfully come through challenges like this in the past, visualising the process. I’d also recall and visualise other challenges I’d overcome in areas of life that weren’t related to speaking to the media, but reminded me I had been resilient and resourceful before.
Research has suggested it can be even more beneficial to go beyond just visualising the process before practising in a challenging environment. Individuals and groups that not only visualised a challenge, but also wrote down their objectives, explained to others what they intended to do, and wrote a weekly progress report, were more successful in meeting their objectives than those who didn’t. Each added incremental step increased the likelihood of a successful outcome.
Also, as described earlier, visiting a place or venue, if relevant and appropriate, where the challenge or task will take place can be beneficial, and being able to physically practise in that environment can help further. Try to add to the visualisation in as many practical ways as possible. If you are required to wear formal clothes for a talk, visualise and practise it wearing formal clothes. Students taking one of the courses I taught had to do their assessed presentations in formal suits, so I would always allow them to book time in the room that would be used for the assessment, in order for them to at least look around, and practise if they wished. I also encouraged them to dress in the clothes they would be wearing on the day of the presentation, both when practising at home and at the venue. Try to make the visualisations and practice as real as possible.
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