Mental Imagery: Bring Your Best Nursing Game

Professional athletes use Mental Imagery to increase their performance success. Applying the same techniques to nursing practice increases confidence and competence.


Somehow, I found myself starting a new job AGAIN. Following my husband's career around the country had turned me into an expert at starting new nursing jobs. This time I had landed a spot in an outpatient endoscopy clinic. It turned out that working in endoscopy was a lot different than my previous position in ICU. It was hard not to feel overwhelmed looking at the endoscopy tower with the scope dangling beside it.

Most of us experience a flood of negative images before we walk into a difficult situation. In fact, I'd be willing to bet my last latte that before you walked across the stage at your convocation, your imagination served up a beautiful image of tripping on your grad gown and falling on your face in front of everyone.

This mental rehearsal starts when we're little and prevents us from doing all kinds of dangerous and stupid things by helping us assess the risk involved with an activity. However, this kind of negative imagery becomes very unhelpful as we encounter challenging situations in our careers. In professional sports, however, athletes use mental imagery to increase their performance.

Using Imagery to Improve Your Nursing Practice

I decided to incorporate this practice, known as mental imagery or visualization, into my nursing experience. During the drive to work, my mind begins to run through the usual pattern of the day. Instead of letting negativity or fear drive the bus, I intentionally guide my thoughts down a different avenue.

I imagine every piece of the shift, and I imagine succeeding. The more detail I put into the visualization, the more powerful it becomes. I run through a mental rehearsal of my day, starting from the time I punch in, to the time I clock out. I imagine the situations that are the most difficult. I consider the best way to approach them and then visualize myself taking those steps.

For example, in endoscopy, I was frequently asked by a physician to open a piece of equipment mid-procedure. As a new hire, I definitely did not know where everything was or even what it was! It goes without saying that the physician always wanted this equipment yesterday. It was instantly agonizing to be searching for some mysterious item under an impatient watchful eye. So I used visualization to picture that situation. I saw myself calmly and methodically looking for the correct package. I saw myself asking clarifying questions to help speed up the search. I saw myself choosing to tune out any negativity or impatience from anyone else.

Practice Makes Perfect

It turns out that the pathways in our brains for imagining something and actually carrying out the procedure are closely related. This means that mentally practicing a skill (or using visualization) and actually performing the skill in the real world are treated the same by our brains. This gives us a wonderful opportunity to increase our chances of success and decrease our stress through the power of our minds.  The more detail you can put into the visualization, the more powerful it is. I found this mental rehearsal so powerful I started using it throughout my shift.

I would use it before a difficult procedure. If the shift had been particularly challenging and I felt myself starting to lose focus, I would deliberately spend a break away from my coworkers and seek out some lonely corner of the hospital where I could refocus my mind and visualize myself being calm and confident.

The result was that I was able to adapt to a completely new environment (from ICU to outpatient clinic) very quickly. I continued working there and enjoying it while the person who was hired at the same time as I quit in tears and returned to her previous position.

In the beginning, it felt a bit silly to use my imagination in this way. The way I see it now, though, if it's good enough to improve the performance of professional athletes, it's good enough for me.

Laura-Lee Nuttall RN, BSN, CNCC-C with 19 years experience.

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Specializes in Family, Maternal-Child Health. Has 45 years experience.

The old saying, "a picture is worth a thousands words" came to mind when I read this.  Essentially your mental visualization is providing you a wealth of direction/information to guide you through your daily procedural challenges. 

I cheer you on this practice - definitely an approach that boosts one's confidence before engaging in unsure waters.  Sometimes if time allows, this imaging can help one identify their own weak areas and seek direction/answers to these idenified weaknesses before the scenario actually plays out.  



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Specializes in NICU, PICU, Transport, L&D, Hospice. Has 44 years experience.

I changed specialities and practice environments a number of times over my career.  Your suggestions are sound and well founded, IMV.

In the first weeks/ months in a new unit, I did deep explorations in the clinical and storage areas to create those mental images for retrieval of supplies during the higher stress situations.