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Relaxation Exercise: Visualization

Here is a stress management technique you can use anywhere. Visualization, also known as “guided imagery,” can help you relax when you’re feeling stressed. And it only takes two or three minutes. You may want to prepare by doing another relaxation exercise, such as deep breathing, before you begin.

Deep Breathing

  • Place a hand on your stomach. You should feel your stomach rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale.
  • Take a deep breath in through your nose.
  • Hold the air in your lungs for a moment. Then exhale through your mouth, releasing the breath.
  • Repeat this up to 10 times. Then return to your natural breathing.

Visualization technique: How to do it

Create your images

The imagery you use can be any scene where you feel relaxed. It can be a place you have been to in your past or a relaxing scene you imagine. It can be indoors or out in nature. Choose something that is calming for you. Fill in as many details as possible. Think about the temperature in the air, the sounds, smells, the relaxing sights around you, and any physical sensations you feel.

Here are some sample visualizations

  • Your raft. It’s a warm day. You’re lying on your back on a raft, drifting in the shade of the trees along the shore. You trail your fingers in the cool water, relaxing completely. You’re floating gently on the water, watching clouds drift across the sky. It’s very comfortable. You lie there as long as you want, just feeling relaxed.
  • Crackling fire. You’re sitting indoors by a warm fire, wrapped in blankets. Outside a cold rain falls. You hear only the sound of crackling logs and you see the flicker of the flames. You feel the warmth on your face and it relaxes and soothes all your muscles. You’re feeling comfortable, calm and relaxed.

These are just two examples of visualizations. Choose your own place of peace.

Give it a try

  1. Position your body in a way that feels comfortable for you (either sitting in a chair or laying on a comfortable surface).
  2. Close your eyes.
    Please note: Visualization is best done with closed eyes. If you’re uncomfortable with having your eyes closed, that’s okay. If you’ve experienced a traumatic event such as military combat or a civilian assault then consider doing the exercise with your eyes half-closed or all the way open. Deep breathing or other relaxation techniques can still work with your eyes open.
  3. Take a few deep breaths using the deep breathing technique described above.
  4. Take a moment to imagine yourself in your relaxing scene.
  5. Put yourself in the scene. Use your senses to experience the relaxing sights, sounds, smells, textures, and physical sensations in your scene.
  6. Allow yourself to relax into this scene. Focus your attention on the peaceful calm of this place.
  7. Continue to focus your attention on the details of the scene and the feelings of calm that come with this imagery.

Give yourself permission

It might be hard to do this exercise at first. You may think visualization is a waste of time. But some mental time-out is important for your health. Give yourself permission to visualize. See if you can stay with the image for at least 60 seconds. If you find your attention getting pulled away by distractions, gently bring your awareness back to the scene. With practice, it will become natural and relaxing. If you‘re prone to falling asleep you might choose to set a timer to alert you after a few minutes.

Once you’ve found an image that’s a good fit, use the space below to jot down some notes about your scene. This is a place you can come back to whenever you need a moment to de-stress. 

These materials were developed by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) in collaboration with Aetna Inc. (“Aetna”). These materials may be reproduced for use within your practice. These materials do not constitute medical diagnostic or treatment advice and are intended only to supplement information generally available to health care professionals with more specific information about the unique attributes, needs and services available to Veterans. Health care providers (other than VA employees) using these materials are solely responsible for the health care they deliver to patients and shall not be deemed agents or employees of the VA or Aetna. These materials are not intended for use by the general public.