Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily the Health & Wellness Committee, and are not a substitute for talking to your doctor.
You are your thoughts, as new brain research informs us. Our bodies turn into the essential stuff we imagine by creating structural and functional changes at a cellular level. This process is explained by the plasticity, or ever-changing nature of our brains. This is both frightening and fascinating, as we can kick-start dreams in our imagination while halting negativity. The imaginal realm has crossed into many forms of therapy (including EMDR, Internal Family Systems, Somatic Experiencing), though their focus is less about empowering clients to image at will.
A virtual playground awaits your curiosity and exploration. Let me know if this is an area that interests you too.
Flash your attention, for just a moment, on the amazing colors of fall foliage in the Wissahickon. Do you give a sigh of contentment and inhale deeply over this amazing reminder of beauty in your backyard? That’s how a powerful image can transport you to a different time and place without a word spoken. Whether it’s a picture of fall hues or the savor of your favorite food, imagining something positive evokes positive feelings and brightens our mood. In other words, our minds hold the power to enhance our physical and emotional well-being.
The power of imagining is something athletes understand implicitly. When a violinist imagines himself before his audience in preparation for performance, or a high jumper imagines vaulting higher than ever before as she prepares to launch, that’s “mental stimulation of movement,” or MSM, in action. MSM involves rehearsing a desired movement and outcome in your mind before taking the leap, bringing ease and fluidity to your movements while enhancing efficiency. Researchers have found an increase in muscle tone as a result of visualizations without actual movement.
MSM, which I call “imaging,” isn’t just for performers. Imaging may improve mobility in Parkinson’s patients and help recovery of stroke victims. There is also growing evidence for improved pain management through this technique. Those of us struggling with anxiety can customize imagery intended for a desired outcome, whether it’s doing well in a job interview, achieving new heights with an artistic pursuit or simply feeling better.
For a glimpse of imaging to relieve shoulder tension, try this MSM exercise.
Releasing the shoulders
Place your left hand on your right shoulder, near your neck, and make small circles with your shoulder. Image a waterfall flowing to its highest point before dropping to a pool at the bottom, continually recycling the water as it climbs to the top of the falls. Reverse the flow of the falls as you circle in the opposite direction; notice if your breathing slows down.
Next, with the left hand still on your right shoulder, squeeze the nearby neck muscles as if squeezing a sponge. Imagine all tension in the shoulder being squeezed up by the sponge. Repeat the squeezing action on the same shoulder three more times, releasing your hand with each repetition to feel the sponge bounce back to its full volume. After the final repetition, release your hand and shake out any remaining tension through your right fingertips. Notice if you feel a difference. Do you feel greater ease of movement in your right arm, compared with your unrehearsed arm?
In this exercise, imaging can enhance physical well-being and ease the body’s hold on stress and anxiety. As a cornerstone of successful weight loss and smoking-cessation efforts, or as a companion in psychotherapy for resolving deeper, chronic life challenges, the dynamic use of imagery is an untapped frontier of possibility. Tuning inward with freedom and curiosity restores our inherent wholeness, awe, and capacity for change.
Elanah Naftali, DrPH, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who actively uses imagery in her personal life and professional practice in Germantown.