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Mental Imagery for Recovery

Chapter 14: Mental Imagery in Recovery

Section 3: SEA's Tools for Recovery Lifestyle 
Self-Esteem Seekers Anonymous -

The SEA's Program of Recovery
By James J. Messina, Ph.D.

Mental Imagery in Recovery

What is mental imagery?

A mental image is:

  • A picture created in your mind of whatever reality you want for yourself.
  • A visualization in your mind's eye, often used in daydreaming and mental conversations with yourself.
  • A visualization that can be used to rehearse new, positive behaviors; then once you actually engage in the new behavior it may feel a little more comfortable.
  • A way of picturing the goals you have in mind.
  • A picture in your mind of whatever you want for yourself: to stop drinking, to stop smoking, to be thin, to exercise more, to manage your time better, to eat three balanced meals daily, to become more relaxed, to control the stress in your life.
  • A picture which is yours to enjoy; you can recreate it everyday in as much detail as you want.
  • A picture of your goal behavior; if imagined frequently and in detail it has a better chance of becoming a reality.
  • A thought that can stimulate the nervous system in the same way as the actual event.
  • Often used by athletes to improve their skills by picturing the achievement of a specific feat, e.g., hitting a ball, skiing a hill, swimming a race, jumping a barrier, etc. which often results in a better performance because of this mental practicing or mental rehearsal.
What are some uses for mental imagery?

Mental rehearsal or mental practicing with imagery and visualization can be used to:

  • Imagine thinking positive thoughts.
  • Practice performing in a positive way.
  • Experience positive feelings and sensations.
  • Rehearse new ways of handling cues for old, compulsive behavior patterns.
  • Solve problems by assigning negative or adverse labels to old cues for compulsive behavior, e.g.:Picture alcohol as poison entering your bloodstream or Picture cigarettes as cancer sticks or Picture unhealthy but favorite foods as inedible and doing harm to your body.
  • Imagine feeling sick and nauseated when entering a favorite shopping mall or restaurant.
  • Picture junk food as sharp, metal objects sticking into your body.
  • Imagine all fried foods as dripping with lard.
  • Improve your mood by using positive, pleasant imagery to alter negative emotions.
  • Reinforce positive behavior, e.g.: After doing something positive for yourself like exercising, picture the positive benefits of being slender, agile, wearing new and stylish clothes, accepting compliments.
  • After a social event during which you avoided cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs, picture the positive benefits of retaining your good health and disposition.
  • Enhance body image by keeping a current and accurate mental picture of your body.
  • Picture yourself as a winner as you achieve a recovery lifestyle.

How does one create a mental image?

To create a mental image or visualization, use these steps.


Step 1: Close your eyes and think of the goal of the visualization, e.g., to practice a new behavior or skill, to change a mood, to reinforce a positive behavior, or to assign a negative image to old cues.


Step 2: Picture the positive outcome after your goal is achieved.


Step 3: Put yourself in the picture and begin to experience the image in three dimensions.

  1. How do you look? Thin, happy, skillful, talented, on target, proud.
  2. How do you feel? Happy, excited, satisfied, competent, at ease, relaxed, "with it.''
  3. How is your body reacting? Relaxed, appropriate, athletic, responsive, skillful, taut, strong, graceful.

Step 4: Picture how others react to you in this imagined activity, e.g., are they rewarding you, reinforcing you, complimenting you, thanking you, accepting you, asking you for a date?


Step 5: Picture how you react to the others' response, e.g., excited, appreciated, thankful, grateful, pleased, accepted, accomplished, a winner.


Step 6: Open your eyes slowly once you feel like a winner. Commit yourself to practicing this mental image until it becomes a reality for you. Remember, to become a winner takes patience, persistence, and commitment to change.

What are some barriers to Mental Imaging?

Mental imaging will not be successful for you if you:

  • Don't allow yourself to relax; find a quiet spot for yourself to create a visualization.
  • Do not believe that mental rehearsing can be an effective tool in changing your behavior.
  • Do not allow your imagination a free reign to create a positive self‑image.
  • Stifle the picture in your mind because you don't believe it is possible for you.
  • Are unwilling to picture positive alternatives for yourself, allowing they will require changes to be made in your life.
  • Are not really serious about achieving success in your life.
  • Are stuck in seeing yourself as a loser and are unwilling to change the loser script in your head.
  • Do not want it to work for you.
  • Are invested in feeling sorry for yourself and feel more comfortable in self‑pity images.
  • Are unwilling to explore alternatives to your current lifestyle, unwilling to make radical changes.

Note: For examples of mental imagery, look at the chapters on Handling Pride and Developing Patience  in the Tools for Personal Growth and the chapter on Death in the Tools for Handling Loss books by James J. Messina, Ph.D.