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Using visualisation to help reduce stress levels

Visualisation is often used by top athletes to help them win. It can be used to rehearse race skills, or practice how to react to a challenging situation.

However, you can also use visualisation to help reduce stress levels. Rather than practicing something swimming-related, you’ll be ‘visualising’ relaxing scenes to help you de-stress.

The goal is to create an imaginary scenario where you feel at ease, taking the feelings of calmness from that place and transplanting them into a situation where you might otherwise be feeling stressed.

Visualisation is an ‘all senses’ technique. Sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing can all be used to help create the scene in your head. The more senses you use and the more details you add, the more likely it is your brain will ‘believe’ the situation and start to recreate the calming emotions.

Steps for using visualisation to help reduce stress

  1. Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted, sit or lie down comfortably and close your eyes.
  2. Imagine somewhere comforting and safe. It could be somewhere familiar, like your home, or somewhere special like a place you went on holiday. Often nature is very calming, so some people imagine themselves in a forest, at the beach, or sitting by a lake. Cute animals can also be relaxing, so maybe imagine being in a room full of kittens or puppies. It doesn’t matter, so long as it feels relaxing to you and you can add lots of details.
  3. Try to hear, smell, taste and feel as much as you can. If you are by a beach, for example, try to hear the sea and smell the salt in the air. Try to use at least three senses.
  4. Visualisation works best the more detail you can imagine. Choose details that appeal to you though. Try not to force yourself to add details because you think they should be there. See what details your brain chooses to add and focus on and go with that flow.
  5. Treat your visualisation like virtual reality. If you’re on a beach, listen to the sea, notice the colours around you, hear the seagulls, walk around and feel the water lapping at your feet.
  6. Don’t worry if you lose track of where you are during the visualisation – this is normal. Don’t worry about yawning or feeling heaviness in your limbs. The focus is on relaxing, so this means it’s working!

Spend time slowly moving around and exploring the space you’ve imagined. When you are ready, slowly open your eyes and come back to the ‘now’. You may feel self-conscious doing visualisation at first, but stick with it, it really works.

Don’t worry if you find visualisation for relaxation difficult at first, especially if you’ve not tried it before. But the more you use visualisation, the easier it gets and the greater the benefits. You can also use certain ‘short cuts’ to make it easier. For example, see if you can find a soundtrack for your scenario (e.g. waves crashing if you’re imagining being at the beach) or use specific props (if you’re in a forest, maybe try holding a leaf so that you can feel). These are believable details that you don’t need to add with your mind.

It’s helpful to practice visualisation ahead of big races or stressful periods such as exams. If you start using visualisation in calmer times, it will be easier to reinforce the connection between the place you are visualising and the feeling of being relaxed and safe.