In athletics, mental imagery has been proven to improve performance and to allow athletes better focus (whether it be during practice or during competition). It allows athletes to review the motor program and the sequence of their movements prior to participation. It makes them better. Period.
Stroke survivors ARE athletes, so why not visualize the goals that you’ve set for yourself? Mental imagery can relax you, it can focus your attention and it allows you to see success immediately (something stroke doesn’t allow in the “real world”). Just thinking about a task or imagining that you are using the affected arm has been shown to activate areas of the brain and increase overall brain activity. It helps relax you and can improve your mood. It is effective as practice for movement even though you are not moving! It can be done by any stroke survivor, no matter your level of current disability. And most importantly, it is SAFE! Since you are not moving, you can use visualization anywhere and at any time without worrying about what could happen.
Oh yeah. One more thing….IT WORKS! Visualization can improve motor function after a stroke!
So how and what do you visualize? How much and how often?
Well, the “how” is easy. Set yourself up in a comfortable chair and minimize all distractions (radio, TV, family, pets, etc). Close your eyes and force yourself to relax. Maybe take a few deep breaths to calm yourself before your start.
Now, the “what” is completely up to you. It needs to be meaningful to you – so be creative and think about things that you are passionate about. (I have Dad imagine walking around Citizen’s Bank Park at a Phillies game – see above). It needs to be challenging – so imagine yourself rehabbed and recovered, doing things that are beyond your reach now. And finally, it has to be repetitive – so visualize the same task often during the day/week. Try to start with 3-5 minutes at a time and work up to 10 minutes as you are able.
Make the images in your brain detailed. Think about smell, sight, taste. Focus on sensation (through your affected hand/foot) and allow yourself to imagine everything from temperature, to texture, to pressure. Recall memories to fill in the gaps – what is the weather like? What does your shoulder feel like? How heavy is your foot as you lift it? BE SPECIFIC and don’t let any detail go unappreciated. Most importantly – be dedicated to the idea that this IS going to help you and that you ARE going to recover. This visualization is a predictor of future events – not just a day dream.