If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. That’s the thinking — and science — behind positive visualization.

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Positive visualization can harness your brain’s natural tendency to create pictures to achieve your daily life goals.

Whether or not you consider yourself a visual person, you’re likely picturing images right now. You may be talking, walking, or typing, but your mind’s eye shows flashing pictures of your to-do list or the sandwich you want for lunch. A lot of this visualizing happens without much awareness or intent.

Positive visualization, unlike random or unwanted visualization, is intentional. You can use positive visualization to reach your goals or relax after a stressful day.

Positive visualization involves intentionally developing a picture in your mind to practice the performance, feeling, or behavior you desire.

The American Psychological Association Dictionary refers to this process as “mentally rehearsing” to enhance performance.

Positive visualization can help:

  • improve sports performance
  • heal mentally and physically
  • enhance relationships and communication
  • improve academic and work performance
  • decrease stress and anxiety

Visualization is also referred to as guided imagery, particularly when used for relaxation.

Visualization works best when there’s a combined focus on the outcome and the process of getting there. Highly realistic and detailed imagery also increases the effectiveness of visualization, according to a 2017 study.

Just as imagining a worst-case scenario can provoke cold sweats, imagining your favorite place or desired outcome serves as a relaxation technique, bringing down your heart rate and blood pressure.

Other benefits of positive visualization may include:

Relieves stress

A small 2018 study found that guided imagery meditations reduced participants’ self-reported anxiety. A 30-minute visualization session reduces stress as effectively as a 15-minute massage, according to a 2017 study.

Fosters creativity and intuition

The American Psychological Associationsuggests that positive or creative visualization helps folks — even children — illuminate their inner strengths, including:

  • self-esteem
  • focus
  • creativity
  • intuition
  • calm

Improves athletic performance

A 2020 review, including reports by high-achieving athletes, says that visualization, paired with physical practice, helps sports mastery and performance. It can improve:

  • concentration
  • motor skills
  • muscle strength
  • endurance
  • pain management

One hour of visualization per day, which the study’s authors call “mental training,” helps fire neurons and activate subconscious learning.

Visualization works best when there’s a combined focus on the best possible outcome and the process of getting there.

Create realistic, powerful images

An imagery technique called PETTLEP, developed in 2001, is often used by researchers and elite athletes for positive guided visualizations. The method invites you to get specific about the following details:

  • Physical: How will you look? What will you wear to run your marathon? What do the trees look like?
  • Environment: How will the stage or sports field likely appear if you need to perform?
  • Task: What are the specifics? Do you need to write a memo? To whom? For what purpose?
  • Timing: What will your constraints be? What time of day will the scene occur?
  • Learning: What is your skill level? What might you need to improve?
  • Emotional: How nervous or alert will you be? Feeling emotions in advance may help you prepare for them.
  • Perspective: What are you likely to be thinking as the central actor in the imagined scene?

Develop your own guided visualization script

As described in the 2017 literature review mentioned above, you might try incorporating the following steps:

  • examining feelings such as an upset stomach associated with anxiety
  • calling up a person or environment that helps you feel confident, like your grandmother or spouse
  • picturing a life problem; for example, saying, “no”
  • imagining yourself brainstorming solutions in the comforting environment
  • imagining addressing the problem effectively and calmly

Following these steps will help you bring the emotional element into your visualization, which makes it more effective.

Follow a guided visualization script

You may feel more comfortable following or adapting a prewritten script for your visualization. Depending on your goals and interests, here are a few suggestions:

Develop a vision board

Creating a vision board is a technique borrowed from art therapy. You might use magazine clippings, your drawings, and photographs to externally manifest your picture of the ideal future. Images may focus on desired family, love, work, exercise, or leisure-time life.

You can pull inspiration from this board when visualizing a realistic image of the best outcome possible.

Positive visualization prepares you to behave and perform in alignment with the best possible outcome — whether nailing a work presentation or winning a pickleball tournament.

The most effective visualizations are intentional and detailed, focused on all steps of the scene, not just the triumphant conclusion. You will probably get the best results if you make time each day, phone- and people-free, to practice.

Positive visualizations give you confidence that this winning future can and will manifest. That self-esteem infusion alone will likely boost your mood.