Healing Mechanisms: Visualization, Active Imagination
Comments: This exercise is just one example of how to use visualization to relax the body. It is meant to open up your imagination to the many possibilities for using active imagination to change states in the body. This exercise is meant to encourage creativity and inventiveness when it comes to finding ways to relax and de-stress.
This exercise addresses the tension we experience when in a fear state (experiencing hyperarousal, immobility, or any type of activation of the nervous system). The tension represents a holding pattern the body has taken on for self-protection from danger. In some cases it is maintained 100% of the time because the system believes it is in danger 24/7.
For me, although the tension is throughout my body, when I pay close attention there seems to be a lot of tension in the base of the head/back of the neck and the sacrum (the tailbone, the lowest part of spine).
Interestingly, this tension pattern is mentioned as a potentially common experience in PTSD in the book Healing Trauma by Jasmin Lee Cori, on page 27:
“Trauma shows up in our bodies in chronically constricted tissue, a shrinking and bracing of the overall structure, a tight diaphragm and shallow breathing, cold hands and feet (because energy is withdrawn from the extremities) and strong tension both at the base of the skull and at the sacrum (the bottom of the spine).” At the end of this sentence, she references John G. Allen, Coping with Trauma: A Guide to Self-Understanding, page 7.
At times, I also have a lot of tension in my shoulders, head and stomach. Tension patterns will vary from person to person.
Goal: The goal of this exercise is to target these two areas – the base of skull and sacrum – and release the tension held there. After that, the goal is to expand this relaxed state to the rest of the body.
After releasing this intense, hardened pattern of tension in the body, blood circulation will be improved. When blood circulation is improved, the body becomes more oxygenated, leading to improvements in functioning and overall energy level. This can help important areas like the brain, digestive system and other vital organs work better.
When I do this exercise, I can feel more sensations in my body. I also begin to feel more at home in my body. I find that I can think a little better and have the ability to organize my thoughts a bit more easily. A lot of the anxious background mental chatter I typically experience becomes eliminated. Having more mental capacity helps me begin to feel more capable, and for certain moments of time changes my perceptions around what I can and can’t do. I would guess this can potentially, along with other exercises, help heal learned helplessness over time.
1. Sacrum (Tailbone)
Say the word “RELAX” in your mind. Say the “RE” on the in-breath and “LAX” on the out-breath.
Keep repeating the word to yourself as you deepen and soften your breath. Breath naturally, allowing your belly to expand as much as it wants, and contract as much as it wants.
Picture the letters R-E-L-A-X sitting on your tailbone as you speak the word RELAX to yourself along with your breathing.
Imagine they are fat, 3-D block letters. As they become 3 dimensional, let them expand downwards into your body.
Now visualize the letters being filled up with something that is relaxing to you. Do you remember a very relaxing day? What was in the environment around you on that day? A lake? Maybe a breeze? Wild flowers, moss, clouds, rain? Whatever was there that reminds you of feeling relaxed, you can fill the letters with it and see if it feels relaxing to that area of the body.
You may try out the following examples and see which one feels the most relaxing. Sometimes when I land on something that my body senses as relaxing I take a spontaneous deeper breath. If something has a personal meaning to you it may be more powerful, but some things are somewhat universal in their meaning of being at leisure, not having a care in the world, and experiencing rejuvenating relaxation.
Notice what happens when you fill the letters with:
- swimming pool water that is purified, clean and sunny
- mountain stream water, sparkling and lively
- tropical ocean water, clean, leisurely and relaxing
- cool sand – shaded, pristine, heavy
- white light
- gold light
Every few breaths, add another 3-D RELAX underneath the first one so the letters extend further down into your body as if you are adding a floor to a building going further and further underground (see illustration). Visualize whatever substance you chose filling this lower story of the building. Allow the relaxation to sink further and further down.
Then allow the substance you are imagining to spread out and flow throughout your entire body. As you release it from the letters, allow the relaxation to ripple outwards like water.
2. Base of the Skull
Do the same thing for the tension area at the base of your skull.
This location is at the base of the back of your head where your skull meets your neck. Imagine the top half of the word RELAX is above the place where your head and neck meet, and the bottom half is below. Usually if you find the halfway point between the top and bottom of your ear and run your finger back along your head from there, that area is right below where your finger ends up. If you need clarity on where these two locations are on your body you can reference the two illustrations that go with this exercise.
Optional Deepening Step — Repeat Steps 1 and 2, but this time slow it down – think RE on for one entire breath (in and out), and LAX for one entire breath (in and out). By going twice as slow, you may fill up your letters much more slowly and attentively, and notice more of what is going on inside your body as well.
3. Entire Body
Now focus on any area in the entire body that feels tense. Move from one spot to the next as needed. Again, imagine the word RELAX in those areas in coordination with your natural breathing rhythm, and fill it with the substance that relaxes you most at this moment. Expand the letters downwards and then outwards.
If you want, you can go through this checklist and see if these areas of your body have tension. If so, do the exercise on the area:
- solar plexus
- heart and lungs
- head/scalp – the muscles that are around your head
- face and jaw
- upper back
- mid back
- lower back
- legs, knees, ankles
Now focus on tense areas inside the brain and do the exercise for those areas. You may also focus on tense or anxious thoughts you may be having. Picture the thought as if it is a cloud in your brain and visualize the word “relax” on the cloud.
Another way to do this exercise is to listen to music and envision the word RE-LAX on the beats of the music. The music should be very calm and relaxing. I personally make a point to avoid sad music because it can evoke too much emotion and I’m really just trying to focus on relaxing. Various types of instrumental music like guitar or piano, hang drum, Tibetan monks, religious music, and choir music are good. You can look on YouTube for “music to relax to” or in Spotify for things like New Age music. When you find something that relaxes you, use the beat instead of your breath to do this exercise.
Proceed only to the Degree You are Ready
As always, go slowly. Don’t force yourself. Take on tiny bits of good feelings – relaxation, safety, openness – at a time. This is known as titration.
Mental and Emotional Work is Necessary to Maintain Muscle Relaxation
I did this exercise for 1 hour and although I experienced all the benefits listed above, I observed that the tension returned relatively quickly after I stopped. This is because if there is a trigger from the environment, or a thought comes up that triggers anxiety or terror, this creates a practically permanent perception of reality as dangerous, and this quickly installs the pattern of protection again into the muscles. Therefore, I think this exercise should be done in conjunction with exercises that help reduce reactivity to triggers so that a relaxed mind can be maintained. If a relaxed mind can be maintained, there will be more likelihood that the muscle relaxation will be maintained as well.
Getting Triggered During the Exercise
If at any time during the exercise you get triggered, for example, you notice a sound or smell that makes you tense up, or have a thought or emotion that triggers you in some way, put even more effort into continuing the exercise. This is important because you want to de-sensitize yourself in relation to triggers, so maintaining the exercise even while triggered starts training your system to perceive that you have more options than reactivity when a trigger comes.
Panicking During the Exercise
If you feel sudden panic as the tension dissipates, this is normal. It happens because the body feels like it won’t be protected anymore if the muscles relax. Assure yourself you are in a safe environment now. Tocus on something safe in the environment, something new and different than what was around you during the traumatic experiences. Remind yourself that you are safe now and it’s OK to let go of a little tension. Don’t force yourself to let go of any more than you are ready for, though.
Disturbing Images During the Exercise
If you suddenly see images of violence, abuse, etc., this is normal and OK. Allow them to pass through you. The images may be appearing because there is some relationship between them and the tension. As you let go of the tension, let go of the images.
Stop and Get Professional Help if…
If an image, flashback, or flooding of emotion comes up inside you that is overwhelming and disturbing to you, please stop the exercise and do something like go for a walk or watch TV for a while. Then find a healing professional to work with. Your system may be too delicate and touchy for self-therapy and you may require the guidance of a trained professional at this time. Resume self-therapy after making progress and gaining more stability with your therapist.
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.