A distress-free holiday season? Imagine that!

Using imagery to IMPROVE the moment

Acting and public speaking teachers notoriously teach fledgling orators and performers a useful skill when confronting stage fright on opening night—picture the audience in their underwear. The underlying message here is, they are normal people, like you, and so you can be yourself up there on the stage and it doesn’t matter whether or not you get it right. The underlying DBT skill here is imagery, from the IMPROVE the moment distress tolerance skills, ones for getting through the moment without making it worse.

And let’s be frank, what better moments to get through skillfully than the holidays, for so many, a true dialectic experience?

The Skill:

The imagery skill (letter “I” in IMPROVE), is about using imagery, visuals, to transplant yourself to another place in your mind so as to temporarily escape whatever it is that you feel the need to flee. You might imagine a place you’ve traveled on vacation, or someplace you felt calm, in wise mind. Or, you might imagine a moment in time where you felt you had both feet on the ground, and your heart and mind in balance, one where you felt effective and strong. By turning to this visual at a moment you feel pressured, maybe triggered by another person, or a memory that brings up difficult emotions, you remind yourself that you haven’t always felt the way you now feel, and that you have other experiences of life to pull from, to recall, revisit, so as to find peace within yourself. The body remembers such events, and the mere shift in your attention to an image of a place that made such a soothing and meaningful impact on you can help put you at ease by tricking your brain into believing something other than the off-putting event is happening.

You might also choose to imagine a fantasy place, a room, garden, or island you’ve created in your mind, a place only you know about, much the way a writer creates his or her own world in a novel. You can distract yourself by decorating, populating, and roaming this made-up environment, which is only limited by your imagination. If you have difficulty staying focused on such an imaginary place, perhaps you place a “landmark” in the fantasy—a point you can return to when your mind wanders, just like you might return to your breath while meditating.

It’s also possible to imagine something simple, like a color, shape, or letter or number, much the way Zen monks might meditate on a blank wall, or a circle or dot on a piece of paper. The point is to give the mind a very simple task, turning it away from the challenging situation, and toward something more neutral, if not satisfying and enjoyable.

A still image or a made-up or remembered environment might not do it for you. Maybe the situation intensifying your emotions is such that imagining all the mountains in the world can’t steal your attention away. In that case, try enlisting your imagination to engage the “problem” in a creative way. For example, you might imagine your body as translucent as a cloud, and the problems you are facing drifting though you, and out the other side. Or, melding imagery with mindfulness, you could imagine your troubles flowing out of you in a steady stream of dark light, as you exhale deeply in breathing meditation. More simply, you might picture your stress shrinking inside you like a tight knot that turns into a tiny little speck before it disappears altogether. You could imagine your body tense with dark light, and as you inhale, imagine soft, warm, yellow light pushing the dark light out.

Or, you might look around the dinner table over the holidays, and imagine all of your family members and friends, and imagine them as talking giraffes, or goldfish.

If you like animals, and think that idea might work for you, you might imagine interacting with one, or, seeing the world through your favorite animal’s eyes. What would a dolphin see, or a butterfly or horse, as it gallops through an open field on a sunny day? Or, you might picture the elements, water (the tide, or a waterfall), fire (a candle or campfire), air (breeze in the trees), or land (a grassy field, or, a mountain). There are all kinds of ways you can engage the imagery skill, and the trick is, finding out what works for you.


Try it now, and see if you notice anything in your body the longer you hold the image in your mind. When you start the practice using the imagery skill, scale the anxiety, tension, or difficult emotion you are experiencing from zero to 10, 10 being the highest. Then proceed with the skill for approximately two to five minutes. Afterwards, are your shoulders lower? Has your breathing slowed? Are you taking full, deeper breaths than you were when you started? Has your mind reduced the chatter, and are you feeling even one step closer to wise mind?


One question that comes up often in DBT is, Why would I want to imagine something to escape my problems, when one of the biggest things I struggle with is dissociating, mentally fleeing the environment and drifting into La La Land when I need to face the people and situations that are difficult for me?
The imagery skill is not about escaping your problems long term. Like most of the distress tolerance skills, this one is a short-term solution—how to get through without making it worse, a skill we think is great for coping with holidays get-togethers, and all the pressure associated with obligations this time of year. Imagery won’t take your problems away, but using this tool might help you take mini-breaks from the pandemonium, so as to find your way back to wise mind and be as effective as possible.

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