• Dr. Kris Boksman, C.Psych

Feeling Happier Could be as Simple as Adding in Visualization

Updated: Jun 7

You've probably heard about how Olympic and Pro Athletes are encouraged to use the tool of visualization to help them achieve their goals. Or maybe you haven't? Another language that psychologists and psychotherapists use to talk about visualizing to help you achieve your goal is "Functional Imagery Training," or FIT, for short.



Person thinking

What is FIT?

FIT is a specialized approach to changing your behavior into more desirable patterns by using mental images. We can use this mental imagery to achieve a variety of outcomes, such as increasing felt positivity, inner peace and calm, and increasing motivation. Athletes use FIT to boost confidence, and to actually SEE themselves successfully competing at the peak of their performance, earning titles and medals. These visualizations help us to get closer and closer to the goals we want to achieve.


Why Use FIT?

We use FIT because it works! If you have been struggling with your mood and want to increase positive feelings instead of struggling with depression or anxiety, this is another technique that you can add into your toolbox for emotional recovery and regulation.



Girl wearing VR headset

FIT is a technique that trains people to use vivid sensory imagery in a manner that

helps them achieve or maintain their goals. It has been used and researched as a method for managing food and other cravings (e.g., drugs or alcohol) and these same successful principles can be used to assist with mood regulation or recalibration at times you are noticing that you are not feeling your best.


Interested to help yourself regulate your weight, too? Here is an article I was recently featured in that discusses the application of FIT to losing weight, in the blog for the popular website, MyFitnessPal.com,


How Does This Work To Make Me Happier?

The FIT method was created based upon the theory of Elaborated Intrusion (EI) theory, which postulates that cravings and desires are triggered by internal or external cues about snacks, which capture our attention. We can use the same approach in FIT to shift our emotions as they designed it to be applied to regulating food cravings.


Whaat? Yes! It's true! This all just about cognition, which is a featured element of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the tried-and-true method used by psychotherapists for decades to combat depression and anxiety, and to help heal from trauma. The FIT method directly applies to our Talk Therapy services at Limestone Clinic Kingston Counselling & Psychotherapy -- one of the things that we like to help our clients understand and master is that how they think impacts how they feel.


So, how does this all fit together? I'm so glad you asked. First let's review a couple of key concepts - internal cues, and external cues.


What is an Internal Cue?

An internal cue is something that comes from inside of you -- a physical sensation or a thought. It could be noticing that your shoulder is sore (physical sensation), or thinking to yourself, "My shoulder is never going to feel right again,) (a thought, also called a 'cognition'). OK? You with me? Cool, cool.


So then, What is an External Cue?

An external cue is something that happens outside of you that you notice. So this might be seeing an injured animal limping at the side of the road. It could be a sensation of a cold breeze blowing past. It could also be a sound, such as the sound of thunder rumbling outside your home.


Who cares about Cues? We do! Because it is all about the Automatic Thinking that Comes After our Attention has been Captured, or Cue-ed.

Yep - that's right. Once your attention has been captured in some manner, we naturally think about what has been brought into our awareness, and when we do not manage these thoughts that get triggered by internal and external cues, this automatic thinking can trigger negative feelings states (or a craving to eat, in the original application of the FIT technique).


FIT is a technique that trains people to use vivid sensory imagery to assist them in reducing cravings by disrupting our natural inclination to think about food when a thought about snacking has been triggered. This imagery technique has been designed to try to stop the type of thinking that many of us automatically do, which then results in a felt craving for a food. FIT has been well-researched and has been shown to help those who are trying to avoid high carbohydrate snacks reduce their snacking behaviours.



Visualize definition

So, if we can use FIT to change how you react to cues about food and eating, why can't we use it about cues for thinking and feeling? That's right - there is no reason we can't use this technique to help us feel better, and to help ward off negative feeling states that might predictably occur when you are exposed to certain meaningful internal and external cues. Why? Because at it's most basic level, this is how cues work:


CUE --> Automatic Thoughts about the Cue --> Shift in How You Feel.


You can use visualization training to assist you to reduce negative thoughts and feelings that would ordinarily be sparked by certain internal and external cues triggering these automatic Debbie-Downer thoughts. When you bring this thinking into your awareness and manage what was previously automatic thinking, you can change the usual outcome of the cue and you can create an alternate emotion as a result! Science and strategy for the win!


Why does Visualization Help Us Feel Better?

It all comes down to our brains! This is the complex organ that is responsible for thinking and for emotional regulation. Our brains are wired to work in certain ways without our awareness or permission. Many of us probably notice that when we are very busy and our minds are engaged in pleasurable and attention-absorbing tasks, we don't tend to do as much negative thinking or feeling badly. However, if our minds are less occupied and we are more free to respond to cues that may trigger a brief thought about a depressing or anxiety-producing theme, we have some free mental resources to think more about this feeling, mood, or worry, and it is the thinking about the mood that Elaborated Intrusion theory proposes creates the eventual shift in inner state (in their theory, it is a craving for food).


We are not doing this on purpose - thinking about something alarming or concerning that has momentarily captured our attention, for whatever reason, is quite natural to do. It is human nature. It is only problematic if it results in a series of more negative, anxiety-producing, or unhelpful thinking that is not consistent with our wellness goals.


FIT was originally designed to work by disrupting the natural tendency to have thoughts about a triggered food or snack. FIT clients were guided through a series of mental imagery exercises and trained to practice imagery at home. The idea is to change thinking from occurring in a world-based, unmanaged fashion to occurring in a purposeful and goal-directed visual fashion. Clients are instructed to vividly imagine meaningful goal-related scenes at times that an unmanaged thinking pattern might instead go to the imagined crunch of a satisfying handful of Animal Crackers, in an effort to overturn our natural tendency to think about foods until a craving is felt and acted upon. To help make these vivid images powerful, FIT clients are taught to think in advance about the benefits of working toward their goals, but in particular to use imagery about something that is more immediate to assist with managing tricky choices or overpowering cravings.


How to Use Imagery to Help Move Yourself Away from a Negative Feeling Cycle.

You may notice in the above description of the implementation of the successful strategy of using FIT for weight loss and snacking management, that participants were each taught how to use specific mental principles that were uniquely helpful to them, and needed to practice using the imagery to think about the positive outcomes and their own "why".


The idea here is that the more you connect with the WHY of your mood management journey, and the more you can connect with daily concrete thinking about WHY shifting your thinking and behaviour patterns will be better for you, the more successful you will be in managing natural thinking patterns about the things that make you anxious, sad, or (of course) food or other cravings you may tend to have.


The authors of one of the original FIT studies give examples of really vividly visualizing feeling good about yourself or proud of your decision to stick to your lifestyle plan in order to overpower thoughts about foods and ride out any cravings that occur. In the same vein, you can really vividly visualize feeling the sense of accomplishment that comes from seeing yourself stick with your cognitive goals to aim for more neutral thoughts instead of worried, depressing, or catastrophic ones. With the assistance of a skilled and licensed psychotherapist, you are likely to really get ahead faster -- after all, this is a skill that will be new to you. And so, like many skills, it will work best if you get some coaching at the outset about how to do it optimally, and it will work best when practiced regularly.



Lady looking at a wall

Similar to other processes related to goal-setting and lifestyle changes to increase your health, you will benefit in your emotional recovery journey by regularly thinking about the meaningful parts of your recovery, reminding yourself about why you are working on your mood and mindset in the first place, and visualizing this daily or multiple times daily, in addition to at times when you are finding yourself noticing an unplanned dip in mood. The more you practice this mental technique, the more readily it will be available to you at times when you need to overpower a tendency to think negatively in a way that leaves you tense, worried, or deflated.


The Bottom Line on Visualization for Increased Happiness

The more resources you can bring to the table for your emotional wellness goals, the better. Having a mental edge to help realign you with your personally meaningful rationale for your lifestyle and wellness efforts will raise the odds of success further in your favour. Cultivating happiness-promoting thinking patterns and moods because you will better be able to be around and enjoy the company of your future partner, children, and grandchildren will be more meaningful and easier to connect with than reducing your anxiety so that you can save money on your monthly prescription fees (though, that would be amazing, too!!).


Give Yourself the Support You Need

Recruiting the help of a good psychotherapist to assist you with getting your mood turned around for the better is a wonderful way to mobilize yourself for faster change and the support you need when working on deeply meaningful personal patterns and moods. May we assist you?


Our clinic would be delighted to help you move into a place of better emotional health. Our team of skilled psychotherapists can give you the counselling you need to help turn anxiety, depression, and trauma around. Call us today at 613-877-4148 or email us using hello@limestone.clinic. You can also use this link to contact us. A REAL HUMAN BEING will get back to you, ASAP.


Dr Kris Boksman bio

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