We can take for granted the ability to snap photos of key parts of our life, with the cameras in our smartphones. But that capacity can be utilised as a psychological tool for identifying the things that are most meaningful to us and that sustain us during difficult times. Reading time ~ 4 minutes, 32 seconds.
A week or so ago I dropped into the office of a therapy colleague of mine and he was doing something interesting. He was putting together a coping plan for a client, but was doing it with images, rather than words.
For reference, a coping plan is a document we put together when we are feeling OK, that outlines a plan for coping if/when times get tough. A coping plan is particularly useful for people who experiences of episodes of heightened stress or emotional overwhelm.
I’ve written about coping plans before and directed people to both pen/paper and mobile app versions – https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2022/04/26/my-coping-plan/
Commonly, coping plans are written documents involving responding to some questions/prompts. In responding to the prompts, the person articulates a range of strategies and people they can turn to if they find themselves struggling. An example is:
Whilst going through the process of writing a coping plan is a good way to reflect on helping coping strategies (writing ✍is a great way to organise our thoughts), I do sometimes wonder whether reading them later, especially if distressed, has the level of resonance required to be effective.
That is why my colleague putting together a visual coping plan was so interesting to me.
A visual coping plan covers similar territory as a written one, except that instead of text to represent the people or activities that you find helpful, you use pictures.
A visual coping plan could include pictures of:
- Places that you find relaxing and/or safe and could be reminded to visit
- People that you trust and you can talk to
- Objects, places, people or experiences that are meaningful to you (e.g. pictures of pets, photos from a memorable holiday)
- Things that represent topics that spark your curiosity and interest
- Therapeutic activities that you know have been helpful in the past when you’ve been distressed
- Actions you could take to reduce distress in the here and now
- Simple nurturing and soothing activities
- Professional supports that could be engaged
I mocked up (in Canva) an example using stock photos but the goal would be, where possible, to use photos you’ve taken or collected. The example includes pictures of a friend, safe place, valued pet, future desired hobby, exercise prompt, soothing activities and the location of a professional support.
You might place this in a visible area, so that you are regularly reminded of these supports and resources. And, depending on what photos you include, you might feel a lot more comfortable having this up in a public place, versus a written version of your coping plan.
I could immediately see that visual coping plans might be more engaging and positively activating a time of distress, versus words on a page.
To be clear, it doesn’t negate going through the written process. In fact, the reflective part of the written process would be needed to pick the photos in the first place, but the photo-based plan is immediately more engaging to look at and well suited for placing in prominent places in your life.
In the days of mobile phones, this is very achievable………
The process of creating a visual coping plan is made easier by the fact that most of us always have a camera on us, because of our mobile phones.
This means we may have a library of photos from which to choose and the capacity to take new ones.
All we need to do then is peruse them and choose those that remind us of the things we need to be reminded of when we are struggling.
We can then use a program like Canva, or just organise the photos in Word or PowerPoint and then print, or set as desktop, or set as background image on phone, or add to digital frame. Basically, whatever method helps you get the photos within eyesight.
The visual coping plan reminds me of another similar use of photos………
There is another therapeutic activity that utilises pictures from our mobile phones. We deliver it in the Be Well Plan and you can find a description on the Greater Good In Action website. It is called Meaningful Photos or Meaningful Pictures.
There are a couple of versions of the activity. The first involves reviewing existing photos on your phone and identifying a handful that are of things that bring your life meaning. The goal is to describe what is in the photo but to dig deeper to explain why it is important. For example, I often pick photos from my garden when teaching this activity.
At a simple level, the photo is meaningful to me because I enjoy gardening. But if I dig a little deeper, gardening is a way for me to connect with my mum, as a set of powerful metaphors for life and its challenges, as a place and time where I can slow mind down, and as a way to connect to country.
Have a look through the photos on your phone 📱 Are there any that have both superficial and deeper meaning to you?
The other version of this intervention is to head out and take new photos, with the goal of capturing those things in your life that are most meaningful to you, and for each photo write down the answer to ‘what does this photo represent, and why is it meaningful?’
I got my buddy chatGPT to suggest a few more examples of photo-based wellbeing activites…..
Photos can form the basis of a number of interesting wellbeing-focused activities.
- Gratitude journal: Take photos of things that you are grateful for and create a gratitude journal. Reviewing these photos can help you focus on the positive things in your life.
- Memory album: Create a photo album of your favorite memories, such as vacations or special events. Reviewing these photos can help you relive happy moments and reduce stress.
- Motivational quotes: Find inspirational quotes that resonate with you and use photo editing tools to add them to your favorite photos. Looking at these motivational images can help you feel more positive and motivated.
- Vision board: Use photos to create a vision board of your goals and aspirations. Looking at this board regularly can help you stay focused on your goals and increase your motivation.
- Nature photography: Take photos of nature and use them as a way to reduce stress and promote relaxation. Looking at images of nature has been shown to have a positive impact on mental health.
- Mindfulness practice: Take photos of everyday objects and use them as a way to practice mindfulness. Focus on the details of the object and use the photo as a way to stay present in the moment.
- Creative expression: Use photos as a way to express your creativity, such as by using photo editing tools to create collages or digital artwork. Engaging in creative activities has been shown to have a positive impact on mental health.
The take home message is……..
You likely have, in your pocket or bag, a tool (cameraphone) that you can leverage therapeutically.
Specifically, the photos you have taken and the photos you could take can be used to help anchor you to the things in your life that are most important to you.
This can be particularly helpful during tough times, when we might have lost faith in ourselves, in others or in the world. These photos can be potent reminders of what gives our life meaning.