From meditating statesmen to affirmation-quoting celebrtities, the power of the brain to help with building confidence or carving out a career has been heralded time and time again. But could using visualisation also help us to achieve physical goals? Can you really train your brain to build your biceps?
We took our questions to Ermina Isanovic
, an Evidence-based Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapist, who specialises in helping individuals, groups and organisations achieve positive changes through the rewiring of neural pathways with the help of hypnotherapy and mental imagery therapy.
What’s the difference between hypnosis and mental imagery therapy?
One could say that mental imagery is sub-set of hypnotherapy, however they can be used together or on their own depending on what goal we are trying to obtain. Hypnotherapy consists of guided suggestion that is either direct (you are relaxed) or indirect (when you are ready, you feel your body relax), which helps calm the mind, induce relaxation, focus attention and heighten concentration. This allows the client to be in the “zone” and have their attention focused so that anything going on in their life or around them is temporarily blocked out.
Mental imagery uses visual guided suggestion that incorporates some or all the senses, therefore allowing the client to immerse themselves into the experience as if it was happening right there and then. Through mental imagery we harness the brain’s positive response to images in order to help manage emotions and life challenges more effectively.
In mental imagery the use of mood boards can be introduced to help individuals articulate the feeling, action and thoughts they would like to obtain. Many people who, for example, have never felt confident, loved or safe actually don’t know how it feels, so mood boards and examples are great to kick-start the mind with the desired state.
The practice is rooted in how the mind affects the body - tell us a bit about the science behind it?
All mental imagery therapy is rooted in two things: psychosomatics and neuron mirrors. The field of psychosomatics focuses on the mind-body connection and how our experiences, beliefs and emotions affect our body. The simplest way to showcase this is in a placebo effect in medical trials; our mind influences the body on a cellular level and creates memory within the body internally. Another example is how stress is expressed through the body; when we are stressed our digestive system speeds up and we tend to go to the toilet more frequently, our skin breaks out due to higher levels of cortisol that increases inflammation and sebum production in the skin.
Mental imagery helps with psychosomatics by creating an atmosphere of calm in the mind, bringing motivation and focus to an individual’s behaviour and thinking. This results in improved performance, self-confidence and stability, which in turn optimises their ability to reach their own goals – physical and non-physical – and to overcome obstacles.
Neuron mirrors refer to the way that our brain mirrors behaviours, attitudes and emotions of the people that we are exposed to. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is through the phenomenon of contagious yawning; the reason yawning is so contagious is because when we see someone yawn the same part of our brain gets activated as is in theirs, due to neuron mirroring and the message is sent to our own body to yawn.
This shows how important the images and people we expose ourselves to are and what part they play in achieving our goals or removing physiological obstacles such as stress, depression, anxiety, emotional eating and so on.
So how does this help us to achieve physical goals more specifically?
The same neurons are fired and the same part of the brain activated whether we’re watching someone else work out, us actually working out, or imagining we are working out. The specific physical goal workshop is backed by research in weight loss and muscle building, it shows how mental imagery affects the body. In a 2004 study, Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist from Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, compared “people who went to the gym with people who carried out virtual workshops in their heads” – i.e. used mental imagery. As you might expect, he found that an increase in muscle mass in the group who went to the gym, by about 30%. However, the group of participants who only conducted mental exercises of the weight training increased muscle strength by an average of 13.5%, so almost half as much.
Similarly, in 2018 the University of Plymouth and Queensland University did a study and found that overweight people lost an average of five times more weight using Functional Imagery Training (FIT), a brief individual motivational intervention that teaches self-motivating skills using mental imagery, compared with talking therapy alone.
So does this mean mental imagery therapy can be used to almost ‘cheat’ the body into changing?
No. I always tell my clients that there is no magical pill, or doctor, psychologist, self-help book or course that will make the changes in their life but them. The commitment needs to be 100% from the individual with the help of a professional and the tools that they provide. However, it is important to be aware of how images that we expose ourselves to affect our behaviour, emotions and way of thinking and this includes images on social media, tv, magazines and so on.
The biggest obstacle in reaching any goal is drive and motivation. A physical goal workshop is designed to drive natural motivation that helps each individual reach their individual motivation/drive through their own positive triggers.
You ask clients to create a mood board that provokes emotion – why is the emotional aspect so important?
We all have different triggers; one person might have anthophobia (fear of flowers) and seeing a photo of flowers would make them anxious, while another person might have the opposite reaction and feel calm and euphoric when looking at the same photo.
The same applies to images of different physical goals. I have clients who come in and tell me they want to achieve a body of a Victoria Secret model, but when we include the images of the girls on the runway in their mood board and discuss how they feel they might say anxious. Now, anxiety is useful in getting the blood pumping to react to danger, but when reaching your physical goals it’s going to do the opposite, so your brain will tell you to do anything to avoid the task that will give you anxiety. However, a small change in the image such as using the same models in casual, evening or workout clothes might make the client feel inspired and motivated.
The mood board is there to trigger positive emotions that will motivate you to make the actions that will help you achieve your goals. That’s why the mood board doesn’t only include images of the end goal but also what is required to do in order to achieve it.
Your own work focuses on the impact of mental imagery therapy on physical change – can it also help with other things?
Yes, absolutely. In therapy I use visualisation to help clients achieve their goals, anything from bringing them to a deep state of relaxation all the way to helping them increase assertiveness, stop addictions, build healthy self-image, public speaking, confidence and achieve their physical goals. Mental imagery/visualisation is great at helping individuals change unwanted behaviours, thoughts and feelings, lowering anxiety, stress, depression and improving self-esteem, confidence and happiness. Visualisation is not only used to cope with psychological challenges such as anxiety and depression, but it can be used in our everyday lives.
So, now we’ve established what MIT is, how do sessions actually work?
The first session is initial consultation where I spend time to understand what goal the individual wants to obtain. Together with them I create a plan of action on how the goal will be achieved. Depending on the goal and the individual it might require anywhere from 2-5 sessions for successful full therapy. (The physical workshop consists of 4 sessions in the first week and then once a week for 3 weeks).
In the first session we also do a short guided mental imagery session to introduce the individual to the therapy style. Once the time comes to start guided mental imagery, they’ll be instructed to close their eyes as imagery is most vivid when we have our eyes closed. A brief induction of relaxation is performed to calm the mind and allow it to focus on the tailor-made guided mental imagery session.
Depending on the goal and the individual, we might focus first on identifying what their goal looks like. For example, if we are focusing on confidence at work, individual(s) might bring with them images that represent confidence to them. As every person is different our perception of what is confidence looks and feels like will be different.
All sessions after the initial consultation start with a quick recap to understand what changes have or have not occurred since the last session, and then the guided mental imagery is adopted to suit the progress the individual has made.
You can find out more about Ermina, her work and Mental Image Therapy on her website