How to Use Visualization to Reduce Stress: Techniques to Relieve Symptoms of Mental & Physical Illness

With today’s hectic pace of life, most people have been affected by stress related health problems at some point or another. While there are many benefits associated with mainstream forms of treatment, such as psychotherapy (e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy, family therapy, interpersonal therapy, cognitive analytic therapy) and medication, a whole range of different self-help techniques may also help to relieve stress and anxiety.

Alternative treatments for stress, anxiety and depression management may include the following: deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, body scanning as well as visualization.

What is Visualization?

Visualization techniques simply require the use of one’s imagination and ideally a quiet place to be alone. The belief that the mind is capable of imagining oneself into a state of relaxation and that positive thinking can help reduce physical and mental symptoms was introduced by a French pharmacist, Emil Coute.

Coute found that when his patients, many of whom were suffering from tuberculosis and hemorrhages, would focus on their illness the symptoms would often appear to worsen. As a result, Coute used to recommend that his patients repeat each day the phrase, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”

In addition to getting his patients to recite positive affirmations, Coute also encouraged them to practice muscle relaxation whilst introducing the idea into their minds that they would be more relaxed the following day, as a means of using the unconscious. Many years later, both Jung and Gestalt introduced techniques to reduce anxiety and stress through the use of one’s imagination.

Types of Visualization For Reducing Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Visualization includes things common to everyone such as daydreaming, remembering past memories and inner talk. Forms of visualisation techniques used to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, include receptive visualization, programmed visualisation and guided visualization.

In order to achieve effective visualization all that is required is to lie down in a quiet space with eyes closed and scan through the body looking for any tension and relaxing any tensed muscles. Next, use as many senses as possible to imagine a peaceful scene such as walking through a forest, listening to birds, feeling a cool breeze on one’s face, smelling the pine and feeling the ground beneath.

Positive affirmations which are statements in the present such as ‘I am totally relaxed’ or ‘I am calm and peaceful’ will also help to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.

Key Benefits of Visualization Techniques

The main benefit of using one’s imagination to do visualization techniques is that it helps the body and mind to relax thus being an effective means of reducing symptoms of stress related health conditions. There is also much evidence that indicates if one regularly practices visualization techniques one will also have an increased feeling of emotional and physical well-being.

Another benefit of this approach is that unlike many other forms of alternative treatments, it is free and all that is required is a quiet space and an open mind.


Making a Generalized Anxiety Disorder Diagnosis: Distinguishing between GAD and Clinical Depression Symptoms

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) causes chronic and excessive anxiety and worry, but responds well to treatment. Generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis requires a thorough medical examination, including a physical examination to rule out physical causes of anxiety.

Making a Generalized Anxiety Disorder Diagnosis

The following criteria must be met before a generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis is considered:

  • excessive anxiety or worry about multiple concerns experienced most days for at least six consecutive months
  • difficulty controlling anxiety
  • symptoms of anxiety disorder cause clinically significant distress and impairment of normal functioning

In addition, at least three of the following symptoms of anxiety disorders must be present for most days during the six month period before diagnosis:

  • difficulty concentrating (sometimes described as mind “going blank”)
  • easily tired or fatigued
  • feeling restless, “on edge,” or “keyed up”
  • irritability
  • muscle tension
  • sleep disturbances (insomnia, lack or restful sleep, or difficulty staying asleep)

Adults must report at least three of the generalized anxiety disorder symptoms listed above. Children only need to report one of these symptoms for a generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis, presuming other diagnostic criteria are met.

Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression

Symptoms of anxiety and depression often overlap, and any generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis has to consider the possibility of a secondary depression diagnosis. GAD may also occur alongside substance abuse or other anxiety disorders. These conditions must be identified and treated for successful generalized anxiety disorder treatment.

Generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis is not indicated if another anxiety disorder explains all anxiety-related symptoms. For instance, if anxiety only occurs in social situations a diagnosis of social anxiety is warranted rather than GAD. If anxiety symptoms are widespread, but worsen in social situations a dual diagnosis of social and generalized anxiety disorder might be considered.

Likewise, while GAD often accompanies substance abuse, a diagnosis of anxiety disorder is not warranted when drugs or medication are the root causes of anxiety symptoms.

Physical Causes of General Anxiety

Physical conditions can cause symptoms of anxiety and depression, and must be ruled out during generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis. Doctors may order blood work or other tests to rule out possible physical causes of anxiety including:

  • cardiac disease
  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • heart attack
  • hyperthyroidism
  • hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels)
  • menopause
  • pulmonary emboli (blood clots in the lungs)
  • tachycardia (rapid heart rate)
  • temporal lobe epilepsy

Generalized anxiety disorder treatment offers relief of anxiety symptoms and helps prevent GAD complications. People experiencing excessive anxiety should discuss the possibility of generalized anxiety disorder with their doctors.


Making a Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia) Diagnosis

Anxiety symptoms occur due to the “fight of flight response” being triggered in the body. This anxiety mechanism, results in the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands, so that the body can respond to an important or threatening issue that has arisen. In the case of medical conditions, the body is in some cases attempting to compensate for an abnormal change in hormone levels.

The Endocrine System

The “endocrine glands” are those in the body that supply needed hormones. These include sex hormones, adrenal hormones, thyroid hormones, the glucose regulating hormones and the master brain-gland hormones. Following is a list of some of those hormones.

  • insulin – from the pancreas
  • T4 and T3 – from the thyroid gland
  • testosterone and estrogen – from precursor hormones (following a conversion process)
  • adrenaline, cortisol, pregnenolone and DHEA – from the adrenal glands
  • TSH, CRH and ACTH – from the pituitary and hypothalamus glands

The endocrine system works in a loop, meaning the hormones are all interconnected so that they work in sync with each other, to help keep them in balance within the body. If one hormone becomes abnormally low, this can result in another hormone rising to abnormally high levels, which in some cases can result in chronic anxiety symptoms.

Thyroid Imbalance

When the body becomes low on either or both of the major thyroid hormones (T4 and T3), the thyroid-regulating “pituitary gland” in the brain sends more TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) to the thyroid gland to prompt it to increase its production of hormones. This is a description of “hypothyroidism”, meaning an under-active gland.

The opposite condition is called “hyperthyroidism” (overactive) and this is caused in many cases by too much TSH being sent to the thyroid gland. When thyroid hormone levels reach higher than normal values, hyperthyroid symptoms will result from a sped-up bodily metabolism. The resulting symptoms for this and other medical conditions that include anxiety as part of the symptom-complex may include the following.

  • Increased breathing (hyperventilation)
  • Increased heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Trembling (tremors)
  • Sudden fear (panic)
  • Increased body excretions (sweating, frequent urination and diarrhea)


When sugar enters the body via the diet, the pancreas sends out the hormone “insulin” to regulate the energy produced for the body by this very necessary fuel also called “glucose”. In blood-glucose imbalance conditions, such as diabetes and reactive-hypoglycemia, the levels will drop to abnormally low levels due to insulin resistance or due to a rapid insulin reaction.

The adrenal glands will then attempt to compensate for the drop in glucose by sending out more of the hormone – adrenaline. It does this to prompt the body to produce more insulin and to replace low energy levels in the body due to low glucose levels. As this occurs, anxiety and symptoms of nervousness can result.

Mitral Valve Prolapse

This common heart murmur, abbreviated “MVP” does not cause symptoms in many people who have it, while others experience anxiety and panic symptoms frequently with the condition. Medical research studies of MVP have found that the “mitral leaflets” that support this heart valve, may become stretched-out or thickened over time and this causes the valve not to close properly with heart beats, resulting in a “click murmur” (sound heard with a stethoscope).

The heart has many nerve impulses triggered within it that regulate the speed of heart function by interacting with the adrenal glands. With MVP, it is believed that these nerve impulses become irregular so that false signals indicating the need for increased heart rate reach the adrenal glands, causing excessive release of hormone (adrenaline surges).

This may be why panic attacks and anxiety symptoms are experienced commonly by MVP patients. One medical term for nervous system imbalance is “dysautonomia” and some medical sources refer to the condition when it is combined with nervous system imbalance as “MVP-Dysautonomia”.

There are other medical conditions, in addition to the preceding three that have been described, that also cause chronic and/or sudden onset anxiety symptoms. A person, who experiences severe anxiety or panic, should see a licensed medical practitioner for definitive diagnoses of anxiety disorder or medically induced anxiety.