Mental resilience and visualisation., part one of a two-part series on imagining the future as you would like it to be. Using advanced imagination, visualisation, and mental rehearsal strategies.
Imagining the future part one, ‘Mental resilience and visualisation’: Using your imagination to visualise how to handle challenges in the future. Building mental resilience with visualisation. Imagining the future you prefer to experience.
Imagining the future part two, ‘Advanced visualisation and mental rehearsal’: Visualisation that produces lasting results. Engaging neuroplasticity with visualisation. Advanced future pacing strategies. Making yourself immune to failure.
Years ago, I remember a quote from the prime minister of New Zealand at the time, David Lange. He said, “If you’re talking to a group of people and the walls all suddenly fall down around you., you have to look like you were out the back organising it 20 minutes earlier.”
What a great line.
And that’s the attitude and mental resilience you can build by using visualisation and mental rehearsal correctly. Nothing beats actual experience for handling challenges. But experience can be created mentally. And science shows that done correctly, the brain cannot tell the difference. Which means, improved performance is the result of both physical and/or mental preparation.
What is mental resilience?
Resilience is the ability to effectively deal with a changing stressful environment. There are both physical and mental aspects of resilience. Resilient people respond to stress differently. Mental resilience training works because adaptations occur in the brain. Neuroplasticity is constantly changing the way our brain works. Learned helplessness and avoidance is an example of a lack of resilience. And is a common reason why people fail to seek help. Mental resilience is a common outcome following adversity for people with a growth mindset. Because it is the result of successful adaptation. Healthy mental resilience allows people to cope in the face of stress. Many people fail to see that resilience is an active process. It is not fixed and can be improved at any time.
To learn more about resilience in the brain read:
What if I can’t visualise?
I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that they can’t visualise. My usual response is to ask them two questions…
“What colour is your front door?”
To which they will give me an answer, and…
“And what would it look like with a sparkly green Christmas wreath on it?”
Which again they will give an answer to.
At that point I will say…
“You’ve just done visualisation and creative visualisation.”
Easy. That’s it!
Often on realising this truth, they say things like… “Oh, I see what you mean” or ”I get the picture, that’s clearer now thanks.” So, they even use visual words to describe their new understanding of not being good at visualising. A clue as to how they are thinking.
Visualisation or mental rehearsal
We ALL visualise. Mental pictures can be very fast and automatic, so that the first you notice of them, is a feeling rather than an image in your mind. For this reason, visualisation is sometimes dismissed because it seems complicated or difficult. Mental rehearsal or creatively imagining is a more accurate term for what is happening. “Imagine a future with new attitudes and actions”, leaves it open to different senses of imagination. Some people have limited ability to imagine due to a condition called aphantasia or mind blindness. This is rare however and, in those cases, imagining is easier in other senses.
Why visualising the future doesn’t work
Much has been written about visualisation and imagining the future. And some of it is misleading. The role of visualising is not to get the details right.
The purpose of visualisation is to get you into the state of mind, that would result in certain actions and thoughts in a future situation.
A close approximation to your desired goal in your imagination is useful as a template. But you can never know all the details until you get there. Sometimes miraculous things do happen, and you get almost exactly what you imagined. Sometimes you will find however, differences that actually make the manifestation better than you imagined it.
The exactness of your practice is not important. What IS important, is having a practised state of mind that will show up regardless of the details of the external event.
Relax about the details., and just feel good about what you are visualising/imagining. One of the main reasons people fail to get great results with visualising is that visualising isn’t enough.
Visualising itself is ineffective
The first thing to know, is that visualising by itself is quite ineffective.
Glad you asked.
With any mental technique that involves ‘tricking’ the brain into believing something is real., the key is to make it as real as possible. Do we experience the real world just in pictures/visuals? No., the majority of us experience reality in 5 senses. Those being: Visual (sight), Auditory (sound), Kinaesthetic (feeling), Gustatory (taste) and Olfactory (smell).
This is where ‘mental rehearsal’ becomes a more appropriate term to use for imagining the future. Because you don’t just see what you want., you hear it, feel it, and even taste and smell it. This is what makes an experience real. And science has shown that the brain cannot tell the difference between what is vividly imagined to be real and what actually is. Mental resilience then, starts before physical reality catches up. And imagining the future needs to include more than pictures.
Mental resilience & visualisation – introducing other senses and movement
Imagining for some people is more of a feeling than a picture. Or it might be what they will hear or say. As I mentioned above, there are 5 senses (modalities). The main 3, Visual (sight), auditory (sound), and kinaesthetic (feeling)., tend to be the drivers of experience more than the other two. IE: They are more commonly the difference that makes the difference. Creating mental resilience with visualisation gets better with time. Focus on your preferred sense and the others will follow. Senses are linked in our mind so even if you believe you can’t visualise, the pictures are there.
Dominant senses in visualisation
Most people have one of the 5 senses that is dominant. If you find it hard to visualise., then think about how you usually remember an event. Do you hear the sounds or voices that were there at the time? Do you feel what it was like to be there? Start with whatever sensation is most prevalent for you when you imagine something happening and then add in the other senses to match with it. If it’s easier for you to imagine how your future will sound, then do that. And by doing so the associated pictures and feelings will be present even if it’s hard to tell. Often by starting with your preferred sense., you can then ‘map across’ to others.
How to build a compelling future image
For example, if you wanted to imagine riding a motorbike. You might start by seeing your hand on the handlebar. Next, you see your hand twist the throttle while imagining what the sound must be like when you do that. Practice that a few times seeing the twist and hearing the roar of the engine at the same time. Now imagine what the pressure of your hand on the rubber grip must feel like as you twist against the throttle resistance and hear the roar of the engine. And then feel the vibration through the seat as well. You can even add in the smell of the exhaust if you like.
Mapping across senses
This way of visualising is using an idea called mapping. By mapping across like this from one sense to another, you build a full experience of the event. And you also train yourself to be better at using other senses in your imagination. The addition of movement (making a movie clip rather than a snapshot) creates drama that makes the whole experience more exciting.
Within a short period of time, you’ll be imagining hurtling down a country road with the wind on your face, leaning into the corners, and hearing the loud roar as you drop down a gear and accelerate down the straights.
An introduction to submodalities
To make the most of mental resilience, visualisation, and mental rehearsal strategies, it’s useful to amplify your imagination. You may not need to do this (see the next section). But this is most easily done by manipulating the submodalities. Sub-modalities are the qualities of the modalities or senses. Here’s a few examples of each:
- Visual: Colour, brightness, distance, associated or dissociated, size, movie or still
- Auditory: Volume, distance, pitch, location, movement
- Kinaesthetic: Location, movement, intensity, temperature
- Olfactory: Sweet, woody, damp, intense
- Gustatory: Sweet, sour, bitter, spicy
These ones listed are likely to affect the intensity of your imagined experience. Changing submodalities will affect how you feel about the subject of the imagined event. In fact done correctly, this method alone (submodality shift), can change the affect a memory has on current behaviour.
Amplifying mental imagery with submodalities
Amplifying feelings with submodalities will be more useful in part two of this series, but I will introduce it here. Do you need to use submodalities this way for visualisation to be effective? No, you don’t. If what you imagine feels compelling and an exciting alternative to your current way of being., then you are good to go. This is a way to boost that feeling and excitement. And again, in part two in the section on the neurochemistry of habit., you will learn why this can be valuable. Anything done with high emotional intensity attached to it is more likely to be remembered and acted upon. So, experiment with submodality distinctions and see what makes your imagination experience more impactful. For example, try making the image brighter, closer, and more colourful. Add more movement. See the scene as if through your own eyes instead of as if you are watching yourself in a movie (See section on associated vs dissociated below). Add sound or increase its volume. Allow any tingling sensations to increase or move around the body. Imagine the smells around you getting stronger and more pleasant.
Make the decision to feel good more consistently
You may be able to get all the emotional amplification you need just by deciding to feel more intensely. Your body and mind know how to do it. They just need the appropriate permission or instruction to do so. Or you may be able to increase the impact by changing how you breathe or hold yourself. Breathing and physiology are powerful controllers of feeling and emotion. If I said, “Sit and breathe now how you would sit and breathe if you were totally excited.” How would you sit and breathe? And then the next question is., “why do you not sit and breathe like that more often?”
Visualising the future associated or dissociated
This is one of the more powerful visual submodalities. And there is some disagreement as to which is the best for imagining the future. The overall answer is to use the one that’s the easiest for you. What’s the difference and why might one be better than the other? Imagine being in the front seat of a roller coaster seeing the ride twisting and turning through your own eyes as if you are on it. This is an associated image. Associated images carry with them more intense feelings. Now image the same scene, but this time you are standing on the ground watching yourself on the ride from a distance away like you are someone else. That is dissociated and tends to result in less intense feelings.
Combining points of view – associated and dissociated feelings
Both association and dissociation will work, but there is an ideal combination. Build your imagined scene associated with maximum intensity as you want it to be first. Then just before you finish., step out of the scene and watch yourself do the activity or have the experience and then leave it there. The reason for leaving it dissociated is that it sets up a direction and intention. Associated images by contrast have more of an ‘I already have it’ effect. The difference isn’t essential for you to understand or use., but it does match how the brain works.
Variety in visualisation
Variety in your imagination creates a ‘through time’ experience in the brain. Without variety, your imagination becomes a one-time ‘gee I wish I could repeat that’ singularity. Keep it fun and you will gain momentum that takes you on mental journeys that leave you feeling truly excited. Which I started by saying, is the true goal of imagining anything. If you train yourself to be in a positive state when you arrive at any future experience, you will respond in the best way possible. And you will get the best result possible, regardless of the external reality. This is what resilience is. Making the most out of whatever life gives you.
Now for the mental resilience training turbo boost feature.
You have to try this, it’s really cool…
Mental resilience and Visualisation – the power of adaption to resistance
Years ago, I was focused on martial arts and wanted faster progress on speed and endurance with kicks and punches. I decided it would be a good idea to put ankle weights and wrist weights on while practicing on my kick bag. It made the whole process of working out and practising techniques harder. But it also emphasised a couple of challenges that I hadn’t thought of. One of those was the challenge of momentum when the intended target was missed. This resulted in a loss of balance and over rotation particularly with kicks.
Adapting in the moment
This was a valuable lesson. Because you aren’t always going to hit your target are you. The solution wasn’t trying to stop or slow the momentum. It was to continue or even speed up the momentum and convert it into the other leg following through or an upper body technique such as a backfist strike.
These are the things you start to discover when you push yourself physically that you can deal with in advance. And creating extreme, or at least enhanced resistance is a common way to build endurance and stamina. Funnily enough, adapting in the moment starts in advance.
Resistance is not futile, it’s strength building
Athletes have done this for many years. Training at altitude is a classic example. Because the body adjusts to working with less oxygen. And therefore, due to adaption, performance is better when at a lower altitude. Or the rugby player who runs dragging a concrete filled tyre behind them. Or the rower who tows a bucket behind the boat creating resistance. And of course, the most common use of physical resistance., lifting weights at the gym. All these things are unrealistic in the context of what the athlete will face on a daily basis while competing. But in doing them, the reality becomes much easier.
The lesson of physical resistance applied to mental health
What if applying the same concept to mental rehearsal and visualising could give you the same benefits?
The mind cannot tell the difference between something that is vividly imagined and something that is real. Studies have shown time and time again that mental practice can result in improvements equal to or greater than physical practice. And in your mind, you can make things as extreme as you like and still get the desired result. That’s not always the case physically. Mental resilience training responds to resistance too. Exercise often gets left out when people think of the brain. Technology can help with this too. Like the Roxiva RX1 light and sound meditation device highlighted on this website. From brainwave entrainment to drug free psychedelic trips., the resulting altered states of consciousness can be profound. And anything practiced in an altered state like this will make a bigger impact.
Mental challenge creates mental resilience
Most people are missing an asset by not using their imagination to make things challenging in the mind in order to make them easier in reality.
But wait I hear you say. If I imagine things worse than I want them, don’t I run the risk of manifesting that?
How many times have you imagined the worst happening only to find you’ve spent all that time worrying for nothing? I know I have. So, did all that imagining create that reality? No.
That’s not to say you should make no effort to change a habit of ‘stinking thinking’. And thanks to Zig Ziglar one of my early mentors for that phrase, haha.
But remember what I said about the primary purpose of visualising. The key is practising being in the right positive state of mind for the event or context you’re imagining. Being annoyed at yourself for not yet being the best version of you, is NOT changing a habit of negative thinking. And that pattern happens way too often.
Creating reference experiences
There is evidence to suggest that people who can imagine their worst scariest scenarios without obsessing over them, experience less fear and worry.
Because what they have done is face their fears and come out OK. Like people who go to scary movies all the time and enjoy them. In that case they tend to have a feeling about the fear (what in NLP we call a meta state) that makes the fear more subtle. Like ‘enjoyment of fear’ or ‘thrill of being scared’ as examples. So, it’s time to use the idea of purposeful mental resistance in a beneficial way.
Mental resilience and Visualisation – step one
Pick an event, person, or context where you’d like to have more resilience and resourcefulness.
If you like and find it easier, you can use a past example of a situation that you’d like to improve in the future. And then adjust the way it looks, sounds, and feels to be a future event instead of a past one. Location in your minds-eye will be one change you’ll want to notice here. If you compare in your mind something that has happened, with something that will happen, you will notice differences in the quality and type of these senses. For many people, a future event is imagined as if it is in front of them off into the distance (usually slightly to the right). And the past for most people is behind them and to the left.
Mental resilience and Visualisation – step two
Start with the sensory system (like visual or auditory etc) that is easiest for you when imagining a future time.
Now create in your mind this future situation by adding in other senses (mapping them across) and adding in movement. Don’t even try to make it perfect, that’s not the goal.
Get some familiarity with this construction. Play around with it until you imagine yourself acting and feeling totally resourceful and getting the result that you want. This is your construction. So, you get to decide how it looks, feels, sounds, how you behave, and what results you get. Get the feeling in your body that matches that. If you need to, remember a time from the past when you did feel that way, and hold that feeling as you construct your visualisation.
Mental resilience and Visualisation – step three
Once you have that going, now’s the time to add in the mental resistance while maintaining the feeling. This is how you create mental resilience in advance.
So, imagine something really crappy happening. Like the person rejecting you, or the microphone breaking down, or a huge rat running into the scene. Seriously, make it absurd. You could even imagine your pants falling down. Then imagine, while remaining in that positive state, handling it like it’s almost not even there.
Examples of mental resilience and visualisation
- The person rejects you: You smile, say “thanks for sharing”, and excuse yourself to go and talk to someone nice.
- The microphone breaks down: You pretend to start it like a lawnmower with a pull cord. Then put it down and ask whoever is in charge of such things to let you know when it’s fixed. And continue by projecting your voice towards the back of the room.
- The rat runs in: You offer it a seat, and make the comment that even the wildlife like what you’re saying.
- Your pants fall down: you pull them back up without missing a beat, and comment on how clothing manufacturing has gone completely ‘pants’ and that they should ‘buckle up’ their ideas because we demand more from our ‘buttons’.
Make imagining the future fun
Do you get the idea!? Humour is not essential but handling the situation like a pro is. Remember, you are the director, producer and ALL the actors in your imagined future! Imagine it how you want it.
This is a fun process, and you are building in the mental resilience to handle anything that comes your way.
Remember also to do this with different future times, people, and places in mind. So, repeat it a few times each time you do this with different variables added.
General or specific change
If you want this change to be a general one that effects many areas of your life, then make one of the variables the context itself. Like at work, and while doing your favourite hobby, while relating to your partner, dealing with critical superiors etc. More on the idea of context in part two of this series. If you want the change to be more specific to one or two contexts/situations, then use only those variables in your imagination.
You will very quickly find after doing this for a while that normal life situations, and even extreme ones will feel naturally easy to you.
Mental resilience and visualisation real life example
Let’s run through a real-life example to settle the idea in your mind.
Let’s say you want more confidence approaching people in a bar. Start with an image of a bar from memory on a typical day/night.
First, remember a time when you felt unstoppable, talkative, and humorous. Or however you think it would be appropriate to feel in that situation.
Then imagine, while holding that feeling inside, walking across to them with that confident look and stride.
Make the scene real: You can see other people, the colours around you, the tables, and chairs. You can hear other people talking, laughing, glasses being filled by the bartender, and sport on the TV. And you can smell alcohol, perfume/aftershave, or cigarette smoke. Maybe even the taste in your mouth of whatever you have been drinking. As you approach them, other people may be looking at you. Some of them make negative comments and laugh at you (that’s the resistance bit). Exaggerate it to the worst you could possibly imagine.
Add resistance only as fast as you maintain the positive feeling
If adding resistance takes you out of your positive feeling state, then start less intense and work up to it. Only add resistance if you can maintain the good feeling state. And can therefore still imagine handling this extreme example resourcefully and still get the desired result. How you feel while doing this is key.
In your mind, while the other people are doing those negative things, you are still smiling and confident. You look at the person directly and introduce yourself and ask if it’s ok if you join them. Then imagine having a friendly conversation with smiles and laughter. Or take the resistance a step further and imagine them saying no. At which point you keep smiling, wish them a pleasant time, and move on. As you walk away the sounds of the other people fade as the song ‘Eye of the tiger’ from the movie ‘Rocky’ plays in your head. Just to spice up the feeling a bit. So much so, that you almost float away. That’s it. Now imagine doing it again another time with different people and a different bar etc.
Imagined reality versus actual reality
In the above example, it doesn’t matter if you ever get to talk to someone in a bar like that or not. Because the power is in the fact that your mind now has a reference experience of being mentally resilient. An experience to draw upon in the future as if you’ve already acted that way before. And reference experiences like this build on each other to the point where you will just BE a resilient person in ANY situation. Your mind will adjust to the pattern of being in a resourceful state. And being this way will become automatic. One day someone will ask you how you manage to stay so calm and composed is stressful situations. And at that point you will smile and maybe share a story of how you learned to be something mentally before you needed to be it physically.
You could even make that one of your future visualisations.
In part two of this series, you will learn how to make positive change last. Building on what you have learnt here. How do you make the positive feelings and decisions made at retreats, coaching or therapy sessions, and personal development efforts last?
Again, it’s one or two intelligently applied distinctions. See you there…