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How to deal with stress


How to deal with stress

Changing your imagery
We have observed that people are far less likely to deal successfully
with a stressful or challenging situation if they have not prepared for it. This is common sense. Just imagine giving a presentation with inadequate preparation, or not revising for an important exam! What would have been the outcome if you had not had lessons before your driving test? We suspect that you would have been very likely to fail.


Another observation worth making is that, prior to stressful events, people tend to have negative images or pictures in their mind’s eye about how they are going to cope – or, to be more accurate, not going to cope – with the situation. These images of doom and gloom seldom reduce stress levels, so the person concerned gradually becomes more and more stressed prior to the event. This can even affect sleep, because the person finds it difficult to switch off at bedtime, and even if he or she does get off to sleep, it is often only to wake up early.


When stressed, staying focused on goals can be difficult. Also, we tend to comfort eat or smoke more. Fortunately, there are a number of imagery exercises that psychologists have developed to help most people deal with these problems. In the next section we shall provide six powerful methods to put you ahead of the stress game.


Coping imagery

This is probably one of the most effective stress-management techniques to help people deal with difficult situations or potential stress scenarios, and can even assist in extreme cases such as phobias. By imagining yourself coping with the feared situation you directly challenge the negative or catastrophic imagery that may be winding you up prior to the event. Notice that we have used the word ‘coping’ and not ‘mastering’. This is crucial, because most people have little confidence in themselves actually performing perfectly, and so have no belief in mastery imagery. Coping imagery enables you to accept that you may not be able to give that perfect presentation, be the life and soul of the party, make no errors at that important job interview or make few mistakes when meeting your new partner’s family or friends. What it does instead is use a step-by-step approach to help you deal with adversity. It is a type of rehearsal imagery that helps to build up confidence. To grasp the basic technique, give Activity 21 a go.


Activity 21Coping imagery

Step 1Think of a future situation that you are stressed about.

Step 2Note down the aspects of the situation that you are most stressed about.

Step 3Develop ways to deal with these difficulties.

Step 4Now carefully visualize yourself in the feared situation. Slowly picture yourself coping with each anticipated difficulty as it arises. Repeat this procedure three or four times.

Step 5Practise Step 4 daily, especially when you become stressed about the forthcoming event.


The sticking point for some people is Step 3 – they are unable to develop ways to deal with the situation. In these cases we recommend that it may be helpful to discuss the problem with an experienced colleague, friend or family member. Remember, the idea is to deal with your worst fears and not to pretend that they simply may not happen.


For example, if you are most stressed about being asked difficult questions after giving a presentation, then focus on how you would deal with this situation should it occur. Perhaps you might decide the best strategy would be to inform the audience that you are unsure of the answer to the particular question but will get back to the person after the presentation. This strategy would then become the key aspect of the visualization to practise in Step 4. To return to the classic example that triggers stress for many people, the driving test: the visualization at Step 4 would include seeing yourself preparing for the day, having a driving lesson beforehand, meeting the test examiner, undertaking difficult manoeuvres and so on.


This method helps to prevent negative images creating high levels of stress, and thereby becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Many successful managers and caring parents have found that they can teach their staff and children coping imagery to deal with a range of problems. The latter find it particularly useful to calm nerves associated with examinations.


Self-motivation imagery

Motivation imagery is used to help people inspire themselves to action in whatever area of life they need a quick jump-start. It was developed by Palmer and Neenan at the Centre for Coaching, who found that many of their clients avoided life changes because they feared they would not be able to cope with the stress created.


Motivation imagery consists, first, of visualizing spending the rest of your life not doing what you want to do, and, second, visualizing actually doing what you want to do. Activity 22 provides the framework for using self-motivation imagery.


Activity 22Self-motivation imagery

Spend a few minutes thinking about possible areas of your life that you could improve by taking action that you have avoided. Examples may include: changing job or going for promotion; returning to study; finishing a significant relationship; writing a book; or challenging your manager, partner, parents or in-laws about some important issue. If you are unemployed, have you become disillusioned after receiving many ‘rejections’?


Assuming you are not too depressed about the area of life you would like to change, undertake the exercise below. Once you start, it is important to work through all three steps.

    Step 1Visualize the rest of your life not having undertaken the change that you would like to. To assist in this exercise, imagine the effect upon yourself, and perhaps on significant others too, for the rest of your life until the day you die if you do absolutely nothing. Think of your regrets, too. Imagine the effect year by year.

Step 2Now visualize yourself undertaking what you want to do, and then see the short- and long-term positive benefits of the change to you, and possibly others.

Step 3Now consider how you are going to put Step 2 into action.

It is important that Step 1 (known as ‘inaction’ imagery) is visualized before Step 2 (known as ‘action’ imagery), otherwise it is possible you may demotivate yourself, which is not the intention of the exercise! Motivation imagery has helped to change people’s lives and pull them out of a boring, stressful rut into a new and exciting domain.


Staying-focused (or goal) imagery

It is important when attempting to handle stress and maximize performance that you see further than the current crisis that may be occurring. Developing personal and work-related short-, medium- and long-term goals can be beneficial and help you to stay on track and move forward. Staying-focused imagery also known as goal-focused imagery is a technique that will assist you to remember your goals on a daily basis (see Palmer and Puri, 2006). Activity 23 describes the process.


Activity 23Staying-focused or goal imagery

Step 1Choose which area you want to work on first; either personal/social or work/career-related goals. (Alternatively, you may wish to work on a mix of both personal and work-related goals simultaneously. We have suggested just working on one area at a time as our coachees have found this easier.) Now reflect upon what you want or need to achieve in the specific area from now onwards.

Step 2Develop realistic short-, medium- and long-term goals for your personal and/or work life. Note them down.

Step 3For each goal develop an associated image or picture that will remind you of it. (For example, if you have a personal medium-term goal of taking up rock climbing, you may have a picture in your mind’s eye of a particular rock face or mountain that you know. If you have a short-term work goal of a career change, you could picture yourself in a building that represents the new career or the college where you may undertake the retraining.)

Step 4Now practise linking the goal with the image/picture.

Step 5On a regular basis, use associated images or pictures in your mind’s eye to remind you of your goals. You can practise this exercise at any convenient time such as when waiting for a train or bus or when relaxing in the bath.


Time-projection imagery

People often lose their perspective in relation to a stressful situation, such as becoming unemployed, failing an exam, relationship break-ups or performing poorly. Becoming stressed does not usually help them to deal with the situation in a constructive manner, and they often lose sight of their goal. Time-projection imagery helps to keep the event in perspective, and so is a useful ‘de-awfulizing’ tool. Activity 24 explains how.


Activity 24Time-projection imagery

Step 1Think of a current problem or situation that you are stressed about.

Step 2Picture yourself 3 months in the future. Will the current problem be as stressful as it is now?

Step 3Picture yourself 6 months in the future. Will the current problem be as stressful or as important as it is now? Can you see yourself getting on with your life?

Step 4Picture yourself 12 months in the future. Will the current problem be as stressful or as important as it is now? Can you see yourself getting on with your life?

Step 5Picture yourself 2 years in the future. Will the current problem be as stressful or as important as it is now? Will you laugh at your problem when you look back at it? Can you see yourself having fun again?

Step 6Picture yourself 5 years in the future. Will the memory and significance of the problem fade into the past? If you still find it difficult to imagine a positive future, picture having a new job or career, different friends or whatever is appropriate.


Relaxation imagery

Relaxation imagery is an excellent method to help achieve a relaxed state of body and mind. It involves picturing in your mind’s eye one of your favourite relaxing places. The scene can be real or imaginary – sunbathing on a beach, walking through a park, taking a relaxing bath. Activity 25 describes the procedure.


Activity 25Relaxation imagery

Step 1Find a quiet place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. If possible, reduce the level of lighting.

Step 2Find a comfortable position and lie down or sit quietly.

Step 3Close your eyes and picture one of your favourite relaxing places.

Step 4Focus on the colours in your relaxing place.

Step 5Focus on one colour in particular.

Step 6Focus on the sounds or silence in your relaxing place.

Step 7Imagine touching something in your relaxing place.

Step 8Focus on any aromas or smells in your relaxing place.

Step 9In your own time, open your eyes.

Anyone who regularly practises this method will be able to achieve a relaxed state relatively quickly and with little effort. If you are really keen to be able to master relaxation imagery, we recommend that you practise it twice a day for 14 days. After this amount of practice you will discover that you will be able to switch into it with ease. Many of our coaching or counselling clients have learnt to use this method with their eyes open while standing on crowded city trains, but this does take practice!


Anti-craving imagery

When we are stressed or under pressure we may comfort eat and consume our favourite snack foods; and if we are smokers, under stress we will generally increase our nicotine intake by smoking more. Starting and maintaining a healthy-eating, weight-control diet or a stop-smoking programme can both be difficult tasks to undertake. Mental imagery is often central to cravings especially food cravings (see Harvey et al, 2005). As soon as you start a diet it is likely you will start to picture your favourite food or snack and if you stop smoking, you will picture the source of your nicotine such as a cigarette or cigar. You may have noticed that craving intensity increases if you start to imagine food or a cigarette. It’s particularly worse for dieters. You may even start to salivate as you imagine your favourite food. Anti-craving imagery helps you deal with these images of food or other items you may crave by replacing them with neutral pictures instead. Activity 26 describes how you can practise anti-craving imagery. (This technique can be used in conjunction with other health-related interventions in Chapter 6.)


Activity 26Anti-craving imagery

Step 1Before you start your weight-control or stop-smoking programme, consider a neutral picture you could imagine easily in your mind’s eye. It should not have any association with your particular craving. For example, imagine the appearance of a rainbow or green hill or forest.

Step 2Close your eyes. Now spend 10 minutes really focusing hard on your neutral visualization. Imagine the colours; look at the item from different angles.

Step 3Now imagine what you crave that could undermine your weight-control or stop-smoking programme; for example, chocolate or crisps. As you start to picture the item, within two to three seconds, replace the image with your neutral image such as the brightly coloured rainbow.

Step 4Start your programme and as soon as an item you crave literally pops into your mind, replace the image with your neutral image.

The instructions for the imagery exercises we have covered in this chapter can easily be recorded onto an audio cassette tape or iPod which can be played when you are undertaking the activities. In Chapter 6, which focuses on physical health, we include another imagery method that helps physical and mental relaxation. If you are in desperate need of relaxation, go directly to page 139 and attempt Activity 34; then go to Chapter 5 once the exercise has been completed.



Imagery can help you to build up confidence before an event.

For many people, imagery techniques can be as helpful as cognitive techniques.

Coping imagery is one of the most powerful techniques to help you to deal with future events and reduce stress.

Rehearsal in your mind’s eye of performance-related tasks can reduce stress and enhance outcomes.

Motivation imagery can help to motivate.

Staying-focused (or goal) imagery helps to reinforce and remind you of your goals.

Time-projection imagery can help you to de-awfulize events.

With regular practice, relaxation imagery leads to a relaxed state relatively quickly.

Anti-craving imagery can help healthy-eating, weight-control and stop-smoking programmes.

Regular practice makes it much easier to use imagery techniques and methods.

Now make notes on what you have learnt.


Extract taken from How to Deal with Stress by Stephen Palmer and Cary Cooper. This is part of the Creating Success series published March 2013 by Kogan Page, priced £9.99. See: