If you don't have a lot of experience with something, or if an event or task puts a lot on the line for you, it's normal to feel some stress about it. Visualizing the event or task ahead of time is an effective way to get rid of the butterflies, focus, and reclaim your confidence. That's because it gives your brain a free "test run" and lays down new neural pathways as you go. But exactly how should you be visualizing to get the best results?

For controlling how you feel, go with the third person

Perhaps a bit counterintuitively, the best way to visualize and use mental imagery--at least when it comes to managing stress--might be to take yourself completely out of the equation, according to psychologists from Hamilton College. In a series of three studies led by Rachel White, the researchers found that individuals who used self-distancing when thinking about stressful future events (e.g., taking a test) felt less anxious than those who imagined themselves as active participants. By looking at the upcoming events as fly-on-the-wall outside observers, the participants dealt with their stress better.

White gives two big reasons why this kind of self-distancing works wonders. First, it puts more distance between you and what you're imagining about the future, which makes you feel like there's less of a threat. Second, stepping back can let you notice or consider things about the event you'd otherwise miss. You get a big-picture perspective, which makes you feel like you've got more of the pieces you need to understand and do well. You can spend more time in positive, objective, constructive analysis and planning.

Moving from one perspective to the other

The next question of course is, how do you get yourself to visualize as an outsider? If you're having some trouble making the mental shift, focus on these three points:

  • Revamp your language. For example, instead of mentally saying, "I'm walking onstage to deafening applause," say "She's/He's walking onstage ... " Similarly, instead of focusing on sensory details as if they're happening to you, ask yourself what she or he is seeing, hearing, etc.
  • Write it out. Jot down what's going to happen. Make a few different versions that show some different scenarios or that focus on specific details. Ideally, do this with old-school pen and paper. This forces you to focus on what's most important and slow down through the visualization process.
  • Create the images you need to see in your head for the scenarios you've written. For example, you could sketch yourself at different points in your presentation (it's OK if you're not Michelangelo!) or stage the scenes in photos. You might also find it helpful to watch some old videos of yourself to get a better sense of elements you otherwise couldn't observe well on your own, such as your gait or how your voice actually sounds. Then try to reference the images and written sequences to take yourself through the story. For example, consider having someone make audio files of the narrations for you so you can listen to it on your commute. Then drop the audio and walk yourself through the story mentally as if telling it to someone else.

When it comes right down to it, visualizing in the third person as an observer is just you honing great storytelling, where you're your main character. This kind of work thus can actually carry over into making more connections and generally communicating more effectively. And it doesn't mean there's never a situation where first-person visualization is appropriate. Research shows that, while third-person visualization can help you see yourself as the kind of person who will do something, first-person visualization is actually really important for engaging the "action" parts of your brain. But if you're truly getting overwhelmed with bad feelings as you think of what you have to do, a little constructive disassociation might be an ideal way to go until you can move to first person as the next step.