Chronic pain is challenging to cope with. Its distracting and often gets in the way of everyday activities. Chronic pain negatively impacts your ability to work, have relationships, or simply enjoy life. However, a growing trend of managing both mild and chronic pain that is tied to the brains neuroplasticity is the tool of visualization.
What is visualization?
Visualization is the process of forming a mental image of something. Often associated with guided imagery, a positive image is mentally created in one’s mind like visualizing a place that brings a person joy. The visualizer holds onto this thought for a series of minutes, and repeats the mental images as needed. As a result of visualization, positive emotions are created or enhanced. Visualization is used to help people cope with a current negative experience by refocusing their thoughts to more positive thought, place or experience.
How does visualization improve pain?
The process of visualization has been found to improve pain because of it’s ability to create a more relaxed state. Relaxation has been found to help release natural “feel-good” chemicals (called endorphins), helping reduce the negative impact of pain. Relaxation also helps reduce muscle tension and inflammation, which are two elements that can make pain worse.
In one study, it was found that there is a positive correlation between visualization and post-operative pain management. After looking at patients who used visualization techniques, and comparing them to those who did not, the study found that those who used visualization, had less pain and required less pharmacological pain management. Post-operative anxiety was also lessened in patients who incorporated visualization.
How to incorporate visualization
To manage pain, visualization can be used in a variety of ways. The most common is to focus on a peaceful mental image. The image used is different for everyone. For some, picturing the ocean and imagining the waves crashing on one’s feet brings calm. For others, a fond childhood memory brings comfort. Regardless of the mental image, it’s important the image create a sense of calmness and tranquility. It’s also important to remove any external distractions and create a space of comfort. Be still during visualization and choose a comfortable position, one you can hold for an extended period.
Another visualization technique is to focus on the pain and imagine it can be changed or reduced. Imagine the pain being physically removed from your body, or reducing in intensity. Use an image that works for you, picture the pain as something you hold in your hand and picture yourself slowly squishing it smaller and smaller. Alternatively, imagine a healing sensation flow through the painful area, like pouring cool water over the area and it liquid trickling over and swirling in and through.
When to incorporate visualization
It’s important to create a regular visualization routine. Your mind needs to be accustomed with the practice before a situation arises when you need it to work. Learning to ski at the start of a downhill race won’t lead to success, but if you learn to ski before the pressure is on you’ll be ready for when you really need to do it.
Visualization may be useful during flareups, but it can also be beneficial in preventing the flareups when visualizing consistently. If wanting to create a visualization practice, it may be easier to incorporate when done at the same time of day. When pain intensifies, visualization can be done immediately, even when little time or space is available, as it can only take a couple of seconds to refocus your thoughts.