The Unexplored Application of Imagery Training
"Fight every battle everywhere all the time always... In your mind,
Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend;
Every possible series of events is happening all at once;
Live that way and nothing will surprise you;
Everything that happens will be something you've seen before”
-- Petyr Baelish, Game of Thrones
The above quote captures Imagery Training and its unique ability to make you feel like you have already experienced a given scenario, despite whether it has or has not happened yet. In exploring how Imagery works, current research has examined the effects of Imagery on sport performance, muscular activity, cardiovascular health and stress appraisal.
Physiological Effects of Imagery Training
To better understand how Imagery Training can be used for things like sport performance, let’s take a closer look at the physiological effects that occur when using this tool. Results of a study looking at mental strategies on the development of motor and cognitive skills in athletes, found that Imagery improved soccer player’s motor skills (i.e., passing, shooting, speed) as well as cognitive strength (i.e., self-confidence, motivation) during practice and competition (1). This demonstrates the positive impact that Imagery has on physical performance, mental focus and overall wellbeing.
The effects of Imagery on muscular activity has become of particular interest to researchers as they aim to put the pieces together regarding the mind-body connection. A recent study conducted by Slimani et al. (2016) found Imagery to be effective in preventing strength loss after temporary hand and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) immobilization. These findings suggest that Imagery Training has powerful effects on the body and can be used as a preventative strategy for muscle loss (2). Furthermore, the results of this study support other research designs that show Imagery Training to be beneficial during periods of injury when an athlete is unable to physically train (3).
Cardiovascular health is an important factor to consider in high-stress occupations and settings, like competitive sports. For this reason, researchers have begun looking at the effects of Imagery on stress appraisal and stress responses within the body. A recent study looked at cognitive and physiological anxiety, as well as self-confidence when exposed to three different types of imagery scripts (challenge, threat, neutral) during a stressful speech preparation task. Results found that participants who prepared with the threat imagery script experienced lower levels of confidence and had a significantly higher increase in heart rate, compared to the challenge and neutral imagery conditions (4). Furthermore, anxiety symptoms were perceived as more negative and the speech preparation task was interpreted as more stressful for participants in the threat imagery condition, compared to the challenge or neutral conditions (4). This research suggests the need for positive mental tools that can be used in high-stress circumstances, to attenuate the detrimental effects of stress on the body.
Why is Imagery Training valuable for professionals?
We can look at performance in sports and productivity in the workplace through the same lens since they both require high performance, focus and resiliency. In this way, athletes and professionals are mutually exposed to environments that can cause pressure and stress. Although we have research to support mental tools like Imagery to be beneficial for stress-reduction and performance, we have yet to apply it in professional settings.
Many professionals use physical activity as an outlet for stress such as running or strength training. But what happens when exhaustion kicks in and you are just too tired to make it to the gym or get outside for that run? Applying positive mental Imagery in a situation like this is an effective way to refocus the mind, relax the body and set you up for success. You can think of Imagery Training as weight lifting for the mind, as it strengthens our ability to change our expectations of ourselves and the outcome of a given situation (5). Imagery Training is an especially important mental tool for professionals because it enables individuals to remove barriers to success such as fear of failure, loss of control and burnout. This becomes increasingly important as you move up the “corporate ladder”, where the level of responsibility and demands for quick decision-making increases.
To summarize, Imagery Training is an effective evidence-based mental strategy that can be used to increase motivation, confidence and productivity in the workplace. Imagining ourselves in a stressful situation and going through the motions of how we wish to react, gives us the feeling of mental preparedness. Imagery Training can be used as an active, solution-based technique to manage performance anxiety and overall stress at work. Practicing focused, intentional visualization regularly can help to increase resiliency, allowing individuals to effectively bounce back after a stressful event (e.g., project deadline). Imagery is truly a secret weapon that you can utilize at any time, anywhere for your own benefit and peace of mind!
Kristin H Kretschmer BA Hons. Psychology, CNP, is a Vancouver-based Holistic Nutritionist and Wellness Counsellor specializing in stress management and digestive health. Her passion is to create awareness around the mind-gut connection and support people in reaching their health goals through nutrition, movement and coping skill development.
Dr. Jason Marr ND arms urban professionals and students of professional studies with the pragmatic tools to maximize performance, productivity and resilience. Using an evidence-informed, holistic and integrative approach, Dr.Marr is a productivity and performance coach for anyone who is striving to be awesome.
1. Slimani, M., Bragazzi, N. L., Tod, D., Dellal, A., & Hue, O. (2016). Do cognitive training strategies improve motor and positive psychological skills development in soccer players? Insights from a systematic review. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2338-2349.
2. Slimani, M., Tod, D., Chaabene, H., Miarka, B., & Chamari, K. (2016). Effects of mental imagery on muscular strength in healthy and patient participants: A systematic review. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine , 434-450.
3. Driediger, M., Hall, C., & Callow, N. (2006). Imagery use by injured athletes: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences , 261-272.
4. Williams, S. E., Veldhuijzen van Zanten, J., Trotman, G. P., Quinton, M. L., & Ginty, A. T. (2017). Challenge and threat imagery manipulates heart rate and anxiety responses to stress. International Journal of Psychophsiology , 111-118.
5. Taylor, J. (2012). Sport imagery: Athlete's most powerful mental tool. Retrieved from Psychology Today : https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/201211/sport-imagery-athletes-most-powerful-mental-tool