How to Use Mental Imagery to Handle Pressure

Eli Straw
How to Use Mental Imagery to Handle Pressure

The ability to handle pressure separates the good from the great. We admire the individuals who seem to be unfazed by big moments. They possess the incredible ability to remain calm, even in the most intense of situations.

Do you also wish to remain calm in the face of pressure? Even if right now you don’t see yourself as someone who performs well under pressure, that can change. By implementing a simple practice, you can alter your own self-perception towards pressure and develop the ability to remain relaxed in even the most intense environments.  

What is Mental Imagery

If you are struggling with handling pressure, there are two areas that need to be addressed. First, you must alter the way you see yourself in relation to pressure. Next, you need to build up the ability to calm your mind.

I know this may seem like an impossible task, especially right now. If every time you are in pressure-filled environments anxiety, fear, and self-doubt take over, thinking about being relaxed and seeing yourself as someone who can handle pressure is a ridiculous idea.

However, the way you currently see yourself is a response to deeply held beliefs driven by past experiences. This all can be changed with mental imagery. Mental imagery, also known as sports visualization or mental rehearsal, is the process of going through a scenario in your mind. This is a relatively simple practice but has incredible transformative powers.

In the beginning, it can seem like an impossible task to change the way you see yourself in relation to pressure. You know in order to successfully perform under pressure you need to be relaxed and focused. Yet to be in such a state you have to build confidence through experience. It can seem like you’re in an unsolvable puzzle.

Mental imagery allows for a safe alternative. By closing your eyes and rehearsing pressure situations, you retrain the way you react in these moments. On top of that, you can use mental imagery to get yourself into a relaxed state when faced with pressure.

You may be wondering how using your imagination could have any impact on real life. Especially when the emotions you feel are so intense. The answer lies in the evidence behind the use of mental imagery.

Why Mental Imagery Works

Mental imagery is described as a quasi-perceptual experience. It resembles an actual experience but is performed absent of external stimuli. We all perform imagery on a daily basis in the form of memories and anticipation of future events.

When mental imagery is performed on memory, you are reliving the experience in your head. At least your own perception of what happened. As for future events, you are taking past experiences, along with the information you currently have and projecting an idea of what might happen.

In terms of pressure situations, memories and anticipation go hand-in-hand. How you manage these types of scenarios depends largely on your own experience. This experience, either positive or negative, will influence the imagery of anticipation.

If you are struggling right now with handling pressure, ask yourself, “What is the memory I currently hold in regard to myself and pressure?”

A negative association between yourself and pressure will create imagery that aligns with that perception. Your memory may be of embarrassment, shame, or seeing yourself fail. That projects onto the future, resulting in you creating a negative depiction.

When faced with a similar pressure-filled situation, your mind will automatically bring up images it has in memory. Your imagery will be that of failing, or not handling the pressure well, which will reduce your confidence, cause distractions, and lead to you inevitably solidifying that memory.

The reason mental imagery works and why it is so important can be summed up with one word: memory.

Instead of allowing past memories to influence future reactions, you must work to alter what the mind sees. That is where the practice of mental imagery comes into play. You are creating a new memory of yourself handling the pressure in the manner you would like, each time you perform a visualization session.

To ensure maximum benefit, you have to create a scene your mind will remember.

"Instead of allowing past memories to influence future reactions, you must work to alter what the mind sees. That is where the practice of mental imagery comes into play. You are creating a new memory of yourself handling the pressure in the manner you would like, each time you perform a visualization session."

Making Imagery Real

The key to effective imagery is making it as real as possible. What moments come to your mind when thinking about pressure? There are a few I can think of. Even if our experiences are different in every possible way, do you know the one area they have in common?

The intensity of the emotions we felt. That is why the memory is burned into your mind. Whether it was a positive or negative moment, the feelings were significant. I can think of a time I let my team down by making the last out, with a runner on second base and two outs in the state semifinal game. This was back in high school, yet I can immediately recall the scene in my mind as vividly as the day it happened.

Leading up to the at-bat I was full of excitement and nerves, and afterward, I was overcome with disappointment and regret. Every second of the experience was consumed with intense emotions. As a result, the image was burned into my memory.

If the aim is to restructure the way we view pressure, the scene we create has to emulate a high emotional state. To accomplish this, you want to be sure you are incorporating feelings into your mental imagery.

Whether your goal is to feel more relaxed or be more confident, it has to be felt. If you do this well enough, that emotion will be tied to the memory. That’s where the real power of mental imagery comes into play.

In the coming sections on how to perform mental imagery, I’ll show you exactly how to do this. But, to get you thinking in the right direction, there are two main elements that must go into your visualization.

  • Seeing: You first must create the scene in your mind. Go into as much detail as to your surroundings, who is there, and what the environment is like.
  • Feeling: Next, you need to bring emotion into it. First, you want to feel how you want leading up to the pressure situation. Next, incorporate the emotions you wish to have after you have succeeded in the moment.

By focusing on these two elements, the scene will be made real. Now, this is not going to be easy at first. The more you practice, the better you’ll become. As your mental imagery becomes more real, the memories you used to hold will be replaced with ones of your choosing.

Where Does Pressure Originate?

When it comes to emotions, I’m always looking for an origin. When we feel a certain way, it must be a result of a cognitive reaction to something external, a thought/image we create in our minds, or a conscious decision.

Pressure is no different. I remember a coach one time telling me there is no such thing as pressure. If only he knew how I felt, I used to think. But looking back, I believe he was onto something.

Pressure is a feeling, which means it will be experienced differently by everyone. That’s why you can say there is no such thing as pressure, it is not a tangible situation or scenario. Rather, pressure is a reaction made by the individual to a moment they perceive to be important.

Going back to the example I gave earlier, the reason I felt pressure during the state semifinal game was the importance I gave to the at-bat. Naturally, I wanted to succeed desperately. I perceived failing to mean letting my team, the fans, and my school down.

Instead of seeing it as just another plate appearance, one of many I’ve had in my career, I created something larger. The result of which was an onslaught of nerves due to the pressure I created.

That brings me to the point I would like to emphasize on pressure. It’s of our own making. Now, I know it’s hard to imagine not feeling pressure during big moments in a game or performance. But the truth is, they can be treated the same as any practice or training.

Making a moment larger than it is does not change the outcome. Whether you feel pressure or not doesn’t mean you don’t care or that you aren’t aiming to perform your best. Everyone is different, and some people need this pressure in order to focus and find motivation.

However, since you are reading this article on how to handle pressure, I am going to assume the opposite is true. If you’re like me, pressure only causes you to lose focus and ultimately interferes with your performance.

The reason I wanted to include this section on where pressure comes from is to get you thinking in terms of your own responsibility. Seeing pressure moments as something outside ourselves leaves us with little control. But, seeing pressure as something of our own creation, steps can be taken to handle this in a healthy way.

That is where mental imagery comes into the equation.

Two Mental Imagery Techniques  

The use of mental imagery is very helpful when working to handle pressure. By utilizing a visualization practice, you can reestablish memories in your mind in relation to those moments you perceive as pressure.

Mainly, the goal will be to change what comes to mind when you think of pressure. Also, you can use more generalized visualization to help you get into a relaxed state during or right before a pressure-filled situation.

First, let’s examine a technique you can use to reframe your self-perception.

Technique #1

Right now, if pressure is getting to you, a shift needs to take place within your mind. I want you to imagine a pressure-filled moment. How do you feel? Do you begin to doubt yourself, have low confidence, or become anxious? That goes to show the emotions you currently associate with these situations.

You can’t blame yourself, because what you’ll feel will be driven by past experiences. So, what you can do is begin visualizing yourself in a different way. With this practice, you can simulate a pressure moment. Instead of feeling how you typically do, be sure to create the emotional state you wish to exhibit.

Here is how to use mental imagery to reframe your self-perception towards pressure:

Step 1: Find yourself a quiet location, free from any distractions.

Step 2: Get into a comfortable position with your back straight. Either sitting on a chair or on the ground. Avoid lying on a couch, as that will make it more difficult to visualize clearly.

Step 3: Breathe to get yourself relaxed. Take ten to twenty deep breaths, focusing on your breath and allowing your mind to become settled.

Step 4: Create your image. Now you want to bring yourself into the moment in which you feel pressure. Make it as real as possible by incorporating all the sights and sounds of the environment.

Step 5: Generate your optimal emotional state. If you make the situation real enough, your normal emotions will set in. Recognize them, and then replace them with how you wish to feel.

Repeat this technique as often as you’d like. The more you practice, the larger of an impact it will have on your memory.

Technique #2

The first technique is to create positive memories that will replace the old held beliefs you had in terms of pressure. This next technique will help you cope with the pressure in the moment. Restructuring our minds takes time. So, what can you do to help alleviate pressure if you have a competition tomorrow, for example?

Well, you can use imagery to help you feel relaxed in the current moment. This technique involves sitting down and first creating a tranquil scene within your mind. The scene will be tied to an emotional state of calmness and relaxation. You will then be able to go back to that memory, once again feeling the emotions associated with it.

Step 1: Find yourself a quiet location, free from any distractions.

Step 2: Get into a comfortable position with your back. Either sitting on a chair or on the ground. Avoid lying on a couch, as that will make it more difficult to visualize clearly.

Step 3: Breathe to get yourself relaxed. Take ten to twenty deep breaths, focusing on your breath and allowing your mind to become settled.

Step 4: Imagine a situation in which you feel the most relaxed and at peace. The scene does not matter as much as the emotions it generates. For me, I like to visualize myself on the beach. Either sitting there, looking out at the ocean or walking along with my dog. Be sure to be vivid within your imagery and make sure the emotions are intense enough to be called upon in the future.

Step 5: When you find yourself in a pressure situation, you want to reimagine the scene from step four. In the middle of a game, it’s unlikely you’ll have the capability to close your eyes to visualize. But, by remembering your scene and the emotions you felt, quickly you can find yourself in the same state of relaxation.

You may not think daydreaming of a beach will help you within your sport, but the state of calm created will alleviate the distracting negative thoughts that accompany pressure moments.

Final Thoughts

Your ability to handle the pressure you feel during a competition can either make or break your career. Performing well in crucial moments is a characteristic sought after by all athletes. If right now the pressure is getting the best of you, work has to be put in to change this.

Mental imagery is proven to be a valuable tool when altering your self-perception. The memories you currently have are dictating how you will respond to pressure in the future. To change these, begin to visualize yourself feeling confident, relaxed, and successful in these moments.

Also, mental imagery can be very helpful in getting yourself into a state of ease even in the most pressure-filled environments.  

If you are interested in a more personal approach to handling pressure, or anything else getting in your way of success, mental coaching may be right for you. To learn more about the benefits of one-on-one mental performance coaching, click here.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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