Mental imagery or visualisation has long been used in psychological therapies, partly because of its powerful healing potential. It is this healing potential that we can harness in working to help people change unhelpful eating habits and lose weight.
Your client’s ability to create mental pictures will help them succeed
Anything that helps our clients change unhelpful patterns of eating and maintain their success is welcome, as the work isn’t easy. In their wide-ranging book on mental imagery, Ann Hackmann and colleagues noted that imagery has a more powerful effect on positive emotion than verbal thoughts about the same information. So if your client is relying on talking themselves through tricky situations around food, they won’t be optimising their ability to strengthen their motivation.
This is particularly true if they are struggling to deal with craving unhealthy food. Craving, as David Kavanagh and colleagues describe in their vividly titled paper “Imaginary relish and Exquisite Torture” is fuelled when we mentally embellish the idea of how fabulous something will taste. And this is the opposite of what we need if we’re intending to resist – our mind is engaged in visualising, but in an unhelpful way. Imagery techniques allow us to help our clients use their visualisation skills to calm cravings or keep on track with other eating-related goals.
Why does imagery work?
The same neural structures are used in imagining a skill as in carrying it out in reality.
Modern Sports Psychology has become seriously interested in visualisation because of this – elite sportsmen and women now practise their skills off the field using their imagination because it actually increases their performance on the field. I was amazed when I first heard this, but there is growing evidence in support. Take what soccer supremo Ronaldinho said to journalist John Carlin about honing his skills:
‘When I train, one of the things I concentrate on is creating a mental picture of how best to deliver the ball to a teammate, preferably leaving him alone in front of the rival goalkeeper. So what I do, always before a game – always, every night and every day – is try and think up things, imagine plays, which no one else will have thought of, and to do so always bearing in mind the particular strength of each teammate to whom I am passing the ball. When I construct those plays in my mind I take into account whether one teammate likes to receive the ball at his feet or ahead of him, if he’s good with his head and how he prefers to head the ball, if he’s stronger on his right or his left foot. That’s my job. That is what I do. I imagine the game.’
What type of imagery works best?
Imagery is most effective when, like Ronaldinho it focuses on both the outcomes and the strategies required to achieve a goal. And enriching the sensory modalities in the image to include the kinaesthetic and emotional as well as touch, smell, sound and sight enhances things further. This multi-sensory imagery can be used to build a much stronger sense of connection to your goal, and a much clearer sense of each step you need to get there.
The key features of helping your client use imagery to achieve their weight loss goals
- Teach the skill: Ask your client to visualize something neutral using all their senses so that they get the hang of what multi-sensory imagery involves. You could ask them to imagine visiting a café and seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and touching the experience. Or use the Lemon Exercise devised as part of Functional Imagery Training (Solbrig et al). This exercise is just to demonstrate what you mean by multi-sensory imagery and isn’t needed again.
- Identify the goal: Get clear what your client’s key intrinsic motivation is – what really matters to them about reaching their goal. It may come as a surprise to you (and I often find, to them!) when you really drill down into what they will most value about achieving their goal. If you want a structure to begin this exploration, use my “Best Benefits” exercise from my book, which gives you a short script for eliciting what’s important to your client. There are three scripts for appearance, fitness and confidence and as each only takes a couple of minutes, you can see which resonates most with your client.
- Create the discrepancy: Help your client think forward to life a year from now having made the change (positive), and to life a year from now if things stay as they are (negative). This basic technique from Motivational Interviewing allows you to enhance the discrepancy between succeeding and not, to help your client really connect with why their goal matters to them.
- Build the positive goal image: From now on, leave the negative image behind and just focus on helping your client build as rich an image as possible of life when they’ve achieved their goal, focusing on their key motivation (from point 1 above). Remember that this isn’t just a visual picture – if their Best Benefit will be how much fitter they’ll feel, get them to imagine what it will feel like physically to move in their body, doing their favourite activity. And how they’ll feel emotionally, what they’ll see, hear and smell as they are doing it.
- Identify the first practical step: Ask them to think about what their first step towards reaching their goal might be. It will be something they can start to do now. Get them to think what the sequence of actions will be, just like Ronaldinho does, and run a video of carrying out this first step in their mind. When they’ve got that mental video, suggest that they practise running through it each day to help keep them on track. And encourage them to start doing that first step in reality from now on.
If you’d like to learn more about practical, evidence-based techniques to help your clients lose weight, have a look at the courses I’m running on the psychology of weight loss. Whatever your professional background, you’re welcome to attend if you want to learn more about using psychological techniques to help in your work with clients. As well as teaching you more about how to use visualisation, the workshop also covers
- The 3 main reasons conventional diets fail
- The biology of eating and appetite
- The Appetite Pendulum and how to use it with your clients
- The psychology of eating and appetite
- Behaviour change and how to achieve permanent habit change
- Working memory and why it’s important in habit change
- How to help enhance your clients’ motivation
- How to help your clients strengthen their willpower
- How to help your clients stop eating when they’ve eaten just enough
- How to help your clients stop eating when they’re not hungry
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Hackmann, Bennett-Levy and Holmes (2011) Oxford Guide to Imagery in Cognitive Therapy
Kavanagh, DJ , Andrade, J and May, J (2005) Imaginary relish and Exquisite Torture. Psychological Review, 112 : 446-67
McCarthy, H (2019) How to Retrain Your Appetite. Collins and Brown
Solbrig, L et al (2018) Functional Imagery Training versus Motivational Interviewing for Weight Loss. Int. Journal of Obesity, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41366-018-0122-1