The technique of emotional imagination has the aim of reducing the anxiety that certain situations or stimuli cause. It is a behavioural technique, belonging to systematic desensitisation, which aims to associate an anxious stimulus with a pleasant response.

In it, he imagines a pleasant scene, which causes that same sensation, this response being incompatible with a state of anxiety. In this article we will know what it consists of, who it is aimed at and how it is applied.

Emotional Imagery Technique: What is it?

The technique of emotional imagination is a behavioural technique, typical of classical conditioning . In classical conditioning, stimuli provoke automatic responses, and the idea is to associate these stimuli with a series of responses from the patient.

More specifically, the technique of emotional imagination is included within the techniques of systematic desensitization (it is a specific type of it).

It can be used alone or as part of a broader therapy. This is the case of Albert Ellis’ RECT (Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy), which includes this technique as part of its therapy .

A type of systematic desensitization

Systematic desensitization (SD), on the other hand, consists of a procedure in which the patient faces the phobic or anxious stimulus through a response incompatible with anxiety, usually relaxation (although it can also be a pleasant state or a pleasant image, as in the technique of emotional imagination).

How does it work?

What is done with the technique of emotional imagination is to associate an anxious stimulus that causes us anxiety and discomfort, with another stimulus of a pleasant nature, specifically, a pleasant image or scene imagined. This image or scene generates in the subject a state of calm that is incompatible with anxiety.

Thus, by associating these two stimuli (and if done effectively), what happens is that when the anxiety generating stimulus appears, the person is able to automatically imagine a pleasant scene that reduces or completely eliminates the initial state of anxiety.

Who is it aimed at?

Thus, the technique of emotional imagination can be applied to children, adolescents and adults. In fact, in school contexts is easy to apply because of its simplicity of application .

For example, a child who feels anxious about going to the dentist may imagine her favorite cartoon character while going to the dentist, or even during the procedure, to gradually ease the anxious symptoms (as they are incompatible with a pleasant state).

However, although it may seem to be a simple technique, in order for it to work, it must be practiced systematically and in different contexts.


The application of the technique of emotional imagination is done in the following way, through these steps:

1. Determine anxious stimuli

The first step is to determine the stimuli or situations that evoke anxiety, fear or dread.

2. Choosing the nice image

Subsequently, the images or scenes (or only one) that generate in the patient a pleasant and peaceful state should be chosen . In the case of children, for example, it may be their favourite fictional character.

3. Imagine

The third step of the emotional imagination technique involves the patient taking action, and imagining, with their eyes closed and with as much detail as possible, the image or pleasant scene previously chosen . In the case of children, and if a fictional or cartoon character has been chosen, it is a good idea for the child to establish a kind of “relationship” with it.

The capacity of imagination varies from one person to another (some may have it very good and others not), but you can always learn, practice and improve. Training exercises to develop it can be very useful.

4. Introduce the phobic stimulus

In the last step, the stimuli that generate the fear or anxiety will be introduced progressively, so that little by little the patient associates them with the pleasant image. The final objective is that anxiety is eliminated, and that the person can imagine the pleasant situation automatically when faced with or the phobic situation appears .

5. Eliminating Anxiety

Finally, as the practice of, on the one hand, imagining the pleasant situation and, on the other hand, associating the phobic stimulus with the pleasant one, is increased, it will be possible to manage to strengthen this association and therefore to eliminate the anxiety that the situation generates.

The role of emotions

But why is the technique useful? From psychology we know that emotions are responses that arise as a consequence of certain events, either external (from the environment) or internal (from the person’s internal “world”).

That is, they can be caused by things that happen outside (for example, the death of a loved one), or by things that happen “inside” (for example, thinking about the bad relationship we had with this deceased person). That is, in the second case, thoughts, reflections, ideas that pass through our minds, etc. are included.

In this way, the technique of emotional imagination aims to provide us with the tools that allow us to manage the negative thoughts that usually provoke the negative emotions or sensations we feel, such as anxiety or fear.

Bibliographic references:

  • Horse. (2002). Manual for the cognitive-behavioral treatment of psychological disorders. Vol. 1 and 2. Madrid. Siglo XXI.
  • Diesing V. (2004). Pragmatic methods in psychotherapy, suggestion, hypnosis, autogenic training in child psychotherapy. Treatise on Child Psychotherapy. In: Bierman.
  • Vallejo, B.A. (2012). Manual of Behavioral Therapy. Volumes I and II. Madrid: Dykinson.