Creative VS Reactive Visualization
One of the questions I often ask at my Compassion Fatigue seminars is: “Do we visualize reactively even when we are not consciously aware of it?” Most people after a moment of reflection will usually say yes. The next question is: “How do we most often visualize when it is reactive and unconscious – positively or negatively?” Again, most people will admit after a moment’s reflection that it is usually negative. Why?
How and why do we often visualize what we don’t want to happen as a default reaction? Under which conditions do we visualize reactively VS creatively? Which physical and affective states is reactive visualization most often associated with?
As someone who utilizes visualization extensively in my clinical work, as a workshop presenter, a martial artist and meditator, I believe reactive visualization is often an extension of mental and emotional processes that have been split off, devalued and disowned from my core sense of self. The more I disown a part of myself, the more power I give it to re-emerge under the radar of conscious awareness – the more I reactively and unconsciously attend to thoughts, images, memories, emotions and sensations that are often associated with traumatic experiences. These traumatic experiences can be mine personally, those that are reactivated from working with a traumatized client and/or from the client’s shared trauma.
Pearlman and Saakvitne in “Trauma and the Therapist” state: “The therapist is witness to his clients’ traumas, through their vivid descriptions of traumatic events, reports of intentional cruelty and sadistic abuse, and experiences of reliving terror, grief, and yearning. He is both a witness to and participant in traumatic reenactments within and outside of the therapy relationship.”
As a witness to another person’s trauma and terror with whom I have an empathic relationship with – particularly if my client’s trauma and terror sympathetically resonates with my own past personal experience – I may begin to incorporate or, “swallow whole” the images, affect, sensations and meaning of that trauma and terror into the fabric of my personal sense of self. Because these images, affect, sensations and meaning are invested with such poisonous energy, they are split off, disowned and projected rather than “metabolized” into the core self as self-structure. This can result in self-weakening and fragmentation rather than self-coherency and consolidation.
Creative visualization is a specific, conscious activity that builds upon body awareness and conscious breathing utilizing visual images, body sensations and positive emotions to align attention with intention to create or manifest a desired end result. It is more than purely mental rehearsal. Creative visualization utilizes body sensations, emotions and breathing in combination with visual images to literally breathe life into the visualization. Most importantly, it aligns attention and intention into a state of psycho-physiological coherence; it unifies mind, body and heart into a state of harmonious integration.
Coherence has its roots in physics – particularly the study of lasers (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). What makes lasers so interesting is the coherency of the light it emits. Unlike ordinary light that is emitted from a light bulb which is incoherent because all the different frequencies (colors) of white light are scattered in every direction, laser light has all the different frequencies lined up like marching men in one coherent beam. When we are in a state of psycho-physiological coherence our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, behaviors – out attention and intention are in alignment – who we are is unified with what we are doing.
Psycho-physiological coherence can actually be measured by heart rate variability (HRV). It has been noted by researchers at the HeartMath Institute that a chaotic HRV correlates with a number of health conditions while a coherent HRV is associated with positive emotional states. In his book “The Instinct to Heal” David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., PhD, sites the research at HeartMath: “In states of stress, anxiety, depression, or anger, the variability between consecutive heartbeats becomes irregular, or ‘chaotic,’ and it has less internal structure. In states of well-being compassion or gratitude this variability becomes coherent.”
Psycho-physiological coherence is a state of physical, mental and emotional harmony characterized by:
Psycho-physiological coherence is a highly enjoyable mind-body state often associated with “being in the zone,” or “getting into the flow.” It is the desired state of professional athletes because it is highly associated with enhanced performance. Social workers also routinely transition in and out of this enjoyable and productive state often without much awareness of how we got into it or how and why we left it. The practice of creative visualization will provide you with a proven method that will give you conscious access to psycho-physiological coherence.
Creative Visualization Exercise
Doc Childre from the HeartMath Institute in his book: “Freeze Frame: One Minute Stress Management” describes a very brief, easy to perform creative visualization exercise that has been shown to decrease stress, anxiety and depression and increase performance and enjoyment. I have incorporated parts of the Freeze Frame technique into my body awareness and conscious breathing below. It is best to do this exercise when you notice that you feel stressed, tense and are reactively visualizing negative images, feelings, sensations and scenarios.
Close your eyes and allow your breath to deepen and slow down. Begin to breathe from your diaphragm. Allow your abdomen to open up as you breathe in to a count of five. Allow the energy of your breath to draw your conscious awareness into your body as you breathe in. As you breathe out to a count of five, breathe your awareness in and through, your heart and solar plexus. Without judging, just allow your felt sense impressions to enter your awareness. Trust your intuitive consciousness.
Allow your attention to surround your heart. If it is helpful, place your left hand over your stomach where you feel your breath arise and fall and your right hand over where you intuitively sense your heart. For some people this may be the physical position of the heart where you feel it beating, for others this may be more in the center of the chest where you feel a sense of energy, consciousness or presence.
Allow your hand to gently rest over your heart and bring your attention to the palm of your right hand. Visualize, sense and feel with your imagination that you are actually breathing energy through your right palm into your heart with each breath that you take. Visualize this energy as a warm, soothing white light or mist that emanates from silver dollar sized spots in the middle of your palm into your heart. Visualize this positive, soothing and comforting energy to surround, saturate and envelope your heart.
Consciously bring to mind a situation in which you experienced being in the zone or being in the flow. It can be anything – your favorite hobby, a warm bath, the last really good session you had with a client, somebody your really appreciate and care about – anything that reminds you of that positive, coherent state. This is more than reconstructing the image – it also involves the sensations and emotions. The more life you can “breathe” into your visualization, the more real it will feel and the greater impact it will have psycho-physiologically.
Next, sincerely ask yourself what emotion and/or action would be most helpful and beneficial to you and others who are involved in your current situation. This is a re-frame, an opportunity to disengage from the reactive “me VS them” perception that can dominate our vision when we are stressed. This also allows the sympathetic branch of the nervous system to quiet and rebalance with the parasympathetic.
Finally, as you continue to breathe warm, soothing, comforting energy through your palm into your heart region, suspend your thinking and listen very carefully to your sense-impressions. Can you sense any change in your overall quality of feeling? Has your breathing slowed down a little? Has your mind calmed? Is there less tension in your neck and shoulders? Does your situation look even just a little brighter and more hopeful? Even small changes are sure signs of success. The very fact that you are able and willing to suspend the crashing in of anger and despair long enough to do the exercise is by itself a success. Each time you can delay the impulse of reactive visualization and replace it with conscious visualization you plant and nourish the seeds of self-mastery.