3 imaginal techniques to calm anxiety and get unstuck

Do you feel stuck with something? It may be a decision to take, a problem to solve, or an assignment to complete. No matter how much time and effort you dedicate to it, the solution does not seem to come and the time passing makes your anxiety grow, together with a sense of frustration. It may feel like facing a wall, and not knowing how to go through it.  

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Here I share three meditation techniques based on imagination that I found effective in managing anxiety, disconnecting from the issues you are facing, and coming back to it with a refreshed mind, and new insights that can get you unstuck.  


The theory behind imaginal techniques

In my counselling practice, I found consistently that inner images have a calming effect. Moreover, in many cases, I found it easier to engage the mind fully in a meditation practice when using imaginal techniques (techniques that make use of inner images, and the ability of the mind to create them, i.e. imagination). 

Within a major school of thought in psychology initiated by C.G. Jung, images are believed to be ‘the primary data of the psyche’ (James Hillman, ‘Re-visioning Psychology’, 1975) and hence to have the power to connect more directly with deeper unconscious layers of the mind. Here is where feelings such as anxiety originate, and therefore, by working with imagination, we can help process them. At the same time, we can facilitate new elements from the unconscious coming to the surface, for example in the form of creative solutions to the problems that are keeping us stuck. 


Preparatory sequence for relaxation and mindfulness 

Firstly, I will describe an initial sequence of mindfulness to be used as preparation for the three techniques that I am going to explain later. This sequence is aimed at predisposing the mind to a meditative state that is needed to dive deep into the imagination. Here is the preliminary sequence.

  1. Lay or sit in a comfortable position, ensuring you feel warm.
  2. Close your eyes and start scanning your body from feet to head. This means focusing your attention as intensely as you can on each part of your body sequentially, starting from your toes and moving up slowly until the top of the head. Focusing the attention on the body automatically helps calming the mind. Note that what is meant is to bring your full presence to each body part, and not to form a mental image of them.
  3. Focus your attention on the breath. Start by counting the in-breaths from one to 10, over and over. After a few minutes, move to count the out-breaths in the same way. Do this for a few minutes. The reason for counting is that it is easier to focus the mind by keeping it engaged in performing a task. When you feel focused, let go of counting and simply focus your attention on the breath. Thoughts will keep coming up. Do not try to resist them, but let them pass like clouds, and keep bringing your attention back to the breath, with patience. 

When the mind feels sufficiently relaxed, the imaginal techniques can be started. You can try each of them in separate sessions (ideally on different days) and see what works better for you. 


3 imaginal techniques to calm anxiety and get unstuck

Flying-up imagery 

I call the first technique ‘flying up imagery’. Its aim is to widen the perspective of your experience, in order to calm down the anxiety and foster the emergence of new insights. It works as follows:

Create an imaginal picture of yourself at this very moment. Focus on its details such as the expression on your face, the colour of your clothes etc. Then enter this image of yourself and observe the space around you with all its details. Then slowly imagine you start to lift up till you reach the roof, and observe the scene from up there. Then slowly elevate to the sky above, looking down to the entire neighbourhood, and then go higher and higher. Spend time visualising as much detail as possible at every stage. Slowly move up till you can see the Earth from space, and then go further till you can observe the stars of the solar system. Move again until you can imagine yourself merging with the universe. 

Notice what happens at this point. Try not to control the images that come up in your mind, but simply observe them, and feel the feelings that are connected to them. Stay there for some time, and then slowly open your eyes and come back to reality. Note down the images and feelings that came up during the ‘merging’ phase, and reflect on them, seeing if they speak to your present situation. It may be interesting to let them rest for some time and come back to them later. Meanings and insights that may be unclear at first, may become clearer at a later stage. 

Processing through body-image

The second technique adds another channel of experience: the body. I call it ‘processing through body-image’. It aims at processing feelings of anxiety and anger-frustration. It works as follows:

Try and locate the part(s) of your body where you feel these difficult feelings. They are usually felt as discomfort in the tummy, or a feeling of heaviness in the chest, or shortness of breath. Try to focus your attention on the affected part(s) of the body and breathe into them. This generally magnifies the discomfort. Try to stay with it and magnify it as much as possible. Then try to visualise the discomfort by associating an image to the sensation in the affected part(s) of your body. For example, it can be an electric wire causing pain, or a blade in your tummy etc. Focus on the details of the image. Then imagine you are removing the damaging object and allow yourself to experience relief in your body. Focus on the sensation of relief as intensely as possible and then slowly open your eyes and come back to reality. You should experience a decrease in anxiety and frustration, and a calmer mind. 

Free imaginal journey

The last technique has a more exploratory nature. It is more difficult to use as it requires being able to let go of control in imagination. Furthermore, I warn against using it without the assistance of a therapist if you have a tendency to get lost in fantasies, to drift away from reality, and struggle to come back to it. There are many variations of this technique, which was originally created by C.G. Jung and named ‘active imagination’. I call this version the ‘free imaginal journey’. 

Once you have reached a fairly present state through the initial mindfulness sequence, let the image of a landscape arise in your mind. Try not to judge it, nor to guide or control it, but simply observe it, and stay anchored to the breath. Imagine yourself in this landscape. Observe yourself. Notice the position you occupy, notice your appearance; is it your present self? Or an image from the past or the future? What clothes are you wearing? etc. Enter the image of yourself and observe the visual details of the landscape from this perspective. Then focus on the other senses; is there any sound? Any smell? Is the temperature hot or cold? etc. Then move your focus to your feelings. How do you feel while immersed in this landscape? You may feel peaceful, fearful etc.

Then move your focus to your thoughts. Notice your thoughts in response to the landscape. Through this sensorial focusing process the imaginal experience becomes vivid and real, and the mind goes deeper in your inner world. Ask yourself if you want to undertake any actions in the imaginal landscape, and if so, allow yourself to do it, and follow the flow of the imaginal events, like on a journey. While moving in the imaginal landscape, keep repeating the process of focusing on the sensorial experiences (sight, smell, touch, hearing etc.), feelings and thoughts, and always keep connected to your breath. If at any point you feel excessively anxious, or any other excessively disturbing feelings arise, just interrupt the imaginal journey, open your eyes, try to focus on your surroundings, and breathe deeply until you feel calm. When finished, take notes of the imaginal journey and reflect on it. Notice the feelings that it brings up, and see if there are parallels with your present life situation, but avoid forcing them. For example; what could the dragon you encountered in imagination symbolise? What about that dark forest or the clear morning sky? 

New insights and a deeper awareness of your present life situation may arise as a result of the imaginal journey. Again, it may be useful to try and read the notes again after some time as meanings may become clearer with time. 

The techniques explained above can help calm the mind, access a deeper level of awareness and see the problems that are keeping you stuck from a fresh perspective. Although they can be practised safely on your own, they display the greatest effectiveness and changing potential when used within the context of a therapeutic process guided by a trained therapist.  

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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