Healing through visualization

In this blog, we treat learning not only as a simple process of reading and memorizing but also as a more complex process of personal growth. Either way, one of the obstacles we often face is a pain, mainly from past traumas.  For this post you may want to read here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

No pain no gain

Any significant personal growth is associated with a certain amount of distress. We need to step out of our comfort zone,  fail from time to time, work hard when we do not really want to and face painful memories.  While physical sports may inflict physical pain and require a lot of determination to deal with the pain, other activities may include mental stress, feeling ridiculous or stupid, facing mental blocks and so on. Personally, I do not think that pain is a necessary part of learning when learning is properly done. 200 hundred years ago pain or fever was associated with healing, yet today we have anesthesia and antibiotics. It is quite possible that we view an obstacle and destruction as a sign of effort and progress, and this can be an issue.

Let it go

When we started the online speedreading courses, many students complained that they could not progress because they were taking themselves too seriously. A huge part of our training assumes doing stupid stuff like imagining funny visualizations and choosing to build elaborate structures around the first thing that comes to mind. Simply trying too hard to come up with a good idea is limiting the creative process. Obsessing about the progress is even more limiting. Eventually, this could result in stress and a mental block preventing visualization. The step that is required is one of accepting yourself as you are. Simply accepting the situation as it was without trying to be great, follow the exact recipe or reach some arbitrary metric.

Stress and pain as limitation and distraction

Many of our students happen to be athletes and they are often trying to compensate poor technique and creative block by hard work and grit. Does that work? Occasionally. In some cases simply getting some specific skill training can overcome a limitation. More often, the progress is not clear and frustration builds up. As frustration increases, there is mounting negative self-talk.

Typically we do not encourage self-talk while doing the task, yet encourage positive self-talk during warm up and relaxation before and after each training session. The positive self-talk reduces stress and pain and increases motivation. Negative self-talk is usually unwanted.  In addition to dealing with the task, the person needs to deal with shutting down the negative self-talk, and with the doubts that generate the negative self-talk.  This may result in a vicious circle scenario, where dropping performance feeds and is fed by the self-talk.

Can knowledge fight pain?

One of the reasons people try to acquire knowledge is fighting their own pain. If something is not working, we are right to search for methods that may help us.  Learning from books is not ideal.  I learned meditation basically from books with some supervision of the university yoga instructor.  Can I meditate effectively for several hours holding my pose, breath, and thoughts? I could when I was meditating. Would I recommend it? Probably, no.

Some books and occasional coaching sessions are the bare minima.  A serious approach assumes being a part of a community, watching others progress. It also assumes creatively applying the lessons learned in various other areas of our lives, and helping others.

It is quite easy to fight pain using the right tools. Sometimes these tools will be as simple as anchoring or reframing visualization exercise, other times we will need more complex tools available to trained psychologists like exposure therapy and hypnosis, and then occasionally we will further need medication. Typically, the hard part is finding the right tool for the job, and we do not address in here.

Visualization as therapy

Visualization is the easiest way to deal with the hardest issues. In its purest form, we visualize the current condition and the desired condition. Then we slowly fade out the current condition visualization and replace it with the desired visualization. If we are more interested in “how” instead of “what” we visualize ourselves succeeding in each aspect of the task, to the point where our body knows exactly what to do. When we are afraid of something, we visualize it getting slowly closer to us, yet generating only pleasant feelings. If we are not sure in our own skills, we visualize from the perspectives of other people. This paragraph sounds simple, yet each sentence deserves about a dozen of books and classes. I am working on a masterclass specifically for this.

There are hundreds of complete visualization recipes for any problem you can think of. Moreover, visualizations address not just the subject visualized, but other related issues, and can provide unexpected positive results.

Can visualization backfire?

Just like no amount of training can overcome poor technique, the visualization often cannot handle the stuff we do not see.  We might become increasingly better at doing the wrong things.  Any pain signals that we are stepping outside the comfort zone.  With proper tools, we can step further out of the comfort zone. If we stretch ourselves slowly in the right direction we grow. If we stretch to fast or in the wrong direction, expect some damage.

The easiest example I see every day is speedreading. When people stretch their reading speed 10% above the speed at which they understand everything they read faster. When people stretch more, they stop understanding what they read and learn not to care about it.  The lucky people who contact Anna simply relearn, removing the bad habits. Those who cannot afford 1:1 with Anna often suffer from slow progress and lack of retention.


As a minimal precaution step, try to analyze your wounds. What angers you? What you could do otherwise? Which skills or blessings did you loose with time, and how can you recover them? Cultivate emotional empathy to yourself in the past, present, and future.  Try to avoid the pain that can be avoided, and accept the things that could not be avoided. Typically we need some coaching to distinguish between the two.

Help others

If you need to help others, do not play their games. People are very good in playing a certain game they cannot win. Let them instead experience an epiphany, the awe of seeing the big picture from a different angle. Quite often this requires the sort of slap-in-your-face that is a part of any great story, drastic environment change like travel, or presence of a charismatic mentor and role model. When you do not have other tools, simply suggesting mindfulness practice or a timeout may do the trick.

Why does that work?

Frankly, we kind of know what works, but we do not really know why.

Visualization increases connectivity between brain regions, allowing the brain to build new connections and making these connections stronger. Then we can bypass old and limited connections and generate a new level of brain functioning. We can see something like that in fMRI imaging, especially in the activation of the cerebellum area.

We further know that modifying the way the brain works, may affect our body, reducing the stress levels and pain, the breathing and the heartbeat rate. For this, we can monitor or electrically stimulate the activity of the vagus nerve.

Moreover, we know that the mindset modifies specifically the perception of physical pain. This is probably an old evolutionary mechanism, as both a hunter and a pray need to endure some discomfort during the critical moments of pursuit -or die.  Being able to switch off the pain for a little while is critical for survival.

Chronical pain

Our ability to feel pain is in our nature. As we are small babies, the more pain we experience, the more likely we are to experience chronic pain as adults. The neural paths of pain and pleasure get stronger with mild stimulation and weaker with excessive stimulations to the point they fire without any stimulation at all or misfire when they should have worked. If you happen to suffer from a chronical pain or lack of sensitivity, you can still rebuild the neural paths.

We have much more than five senses, and pain is yet another sense. When my kids were born, for several years I lost the sense of smell. I do not really know what caused it: stress, diapers or some weird change in my brain. Recently I have been exposing myself to different kinds of smell, recalibrating my senses. You can basically order a set of stimulants online. After three months of calibration, I think my sense of smell is back. The same works with other senses, including pain.


This has been a long article. I will try to summarize the things that are important for me as the author:

  1. Some pain is evolutionary necessary as an indicator of stepping out of the comfort zone.  Often avoiding the pain is the smart thing to do.
  2. If we need to transcend our pain, we are perfectly capable of doing this.
  3. Visualization is good not just for memory and speedreading: it is a crucial mechanism for dealing with personal problems.
  4. Visualization-based therapy is not a hippie talk, but something that can be measured in neural imaging. Moreover, electrical stimulation of the relevant nerves can provide a similar effect.
  5. Do not try to treat yourself without some coaching, as you might be addressing issues you simply do not see.
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