Guided imagery therapy


What is guided imagery?
Guided imagery is a traditional mind-body technique that is also considered a form of hypnosis. Visualization and guided imagery offer tools to direct one’s concentration on images held in the mind’s eye. These therapies take advantage of the connection between the visual brain and the involuntary nervous system. When this portion of the brain (the visual cortex at the back of the head) is activated, without receiving direct input from the eyes, it can influence physical and emotional states. This, in turn, can help elicit physiologic changes in the body, including therapeutic goals.

What is this therapy used for?
Because guided imagery is a mind-body therapy, any stress-related health concern, including high blood pressure, pain related to muscle tension, insomnia, and anxiety or depression, may be alleviated via this approach. Associated conditions, such as skin rashes or irritable bowel syndrome, are also amenable to guided imagery. It has been shown to be beneficial in treating autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, and can be useful to alleviate chronic allergies, hives and asthma.

The Academy for Guided Imagery (AGI) classifies the therapeutic application of guided imagery into three categories:

  1. Stress reduction and relaxation
  2. Active visualization or directed imagery – for improving performance, changing behavior, or influencing an outcome
  3. Receptive imagery – in which words and images are brought to consciousness to explore and give information about symptoms, treatments, moods or illnesses

The AGI website has a wealth of research-based information on specific disease processes that can be addressed with guided imagery.

What should one expect on a visit to a practitioner of guided imagery?
Guided imagery can be learned from books, self-help tapes, CDs, DVDs or in an interactive format utilizing a licensed practitioner to facilitate these techniques. Initially, guided imagery involves achieving a state of relaxation. To attain this, most clients begin by lying down or sitting in a comfortable chair, loosening any tight fitting clothes, and disabling common distractions, including televisions, cell phones and computers.  Practitioners often have a room that facilitates this process. After a client gets comfortable, breathing techniques, music, progressive muscle relaxation or a guided induction is often used to help foster a state of deep calm.

From there, a set of instructions or suggestions is given to allow one’s own images or imagination to guide him or herself toward the method of relieving symptoms. This can also include discovering images that have a message about particular symptoms or a condition, which can offer insight, understanding or better control of the physical concerns. Visualization exercises include graphic or vivid images that are held in the mind that produce healing and comfort. Moreover, the repetition of these exercises causes learning or a conditioning effect, so that the positive physical changes can eventually become available wherever and whenever the patient chooses to use them. Imagery is not necessarily just visual, but rather the use of all the senses. It can become more vivid if it is made bright and clear – that is, effort is made to actually hear, fell smell or even taste the imagined scene. How long one focuses on the techniques is less important than how regularly they are practiced – a few minutes every day can reap greater benefits than spending more time on it less often.

Are there any side effects or indications where guided imagery should be avoided?
There are no known contraindications for using guided imagery. This is not a technique, however, that should be incorporated into patient care when a client is uncomfortable about using it for personal or spiritual reasons. Mind-body approaches should be used in conjunction with, and not in place of, indicated physical therapies.

Are there other therapies that might work well in conjunction with guided imagery?
Mind-body medicine can work well as an adjunct to any conventional or alternative therapy. Imagery techniques are often used in conjunction with massage and other touch therapies. Guided imagery is frequently employed along with various forms of psychotherapy to facilitate behavioral change.

How does Dr. Weil feel about guided imagery?
Dr. Weil believes in the power of the mind-body connection to facilitate healing, and frequently recommends guided imagery to augment the recovery process for surgical patients. His recommendations include consulting practitioners and playing imagery tapes/CDs both before and after surgery. Additionally, he cites over 200 studies offering compelling evidence that guided imagery can effectively help decrease pain and the need for pain medication, reduce side effects and complications of surgery, lessen stress and anxiety before and after procedures, reduce recovery time, improve sleep, strengthen the immune system, and boost self-confidence and self-control.

Dr. Weil’s clinical practice has shown that guided imagery can also be very effective in the treatment of stress-related disorders, autoimmune conditions, and problems of the skin.

For some people who have never tried guided imagery or hypnosis, the idea of getting deeply relaxed or going into a hypnotic trance may seem frightening. But the fact is that we’ve all experienced trance states in everyday life: daydreaming, watching a movie, driving home on autopilot, or practicing meditation or other relaxation techniques. Essentially, trance is simply an altered state of consciousness marked by decreased scope and increased intensity of awareness. What distinguishes guided imagery and other forms of hypnosis is that it involves a deliberate choice to enter this state of consciousness for a goal beyond relaxation: to focus your concentration and use suggestion to promote healing. A person in trance is always under control, just as someone who is daydreaming can decide to go on or stop at any time. While a practitioner serves as a teacher or guide, the only person who can allow the shift in consciousness is you, since trance is a latent potential of your own mind. Therefore, all hypnosis/imagery is self-hypnosis/imagery. It is the self-directed aspect of this therapy that Dr. Weil finds particularly appealing, as he believes that patients do best when they have an understanding and control over the therapies that they use for healing.

courtesy of Dr. Andrew Weil