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Guided Imagery or Visualization


Advocates of imagery contend that the imagination is a potent healer that has long been overlooked by practitioners of Western medicine. Imagery can relieve pain, speed healing and help the body subdue hundreds of ailments, including depression, impotence, allergies and asthma.

The power of the mind to influence the body is quite remarkable. Although it isn't always curative, imagery can be helpful in 90 percent of the problems that people bring to the attention of their primary care physicians.

Images and Other Senses Are the Means Used by the Brain to Communicate with Our Other Organs

Imagery is the most fundamental language we have. Everything you do, the mind processes through images. When we recall events from our past or childhood, we think of pictures, images, sounds, pain, etc. It is hardly ever be through words.

Images aren't necessarily limited to visual but can be sounds, tastes, smells or a combination of sensations. A certain smell, for example, may invoke either pleasant or bad memories in you. Similarly, going to a place where you had a bad accident may instantly invoke visions of the accident and initiate flight or fight response.

Think, for example, of holding a fresh, juicy lemon in your hand. Perhaps you can feel its texture or see the vividness of its yellow skin. As you slice it open, you see the juice squirt out of it. The lemon's tart aroma is overwhelming. Finally, you stick it in your mouth, suck on it and taste the sour flavor as the juices roll over your tongue.

More than likely, your body reacted in some way to that image. For example, you may have begun to salivate.

Imagery is the language that the mind uses to communicate with the body. You can't really talk to a wart and say 'Hey, go away,' because that's not the language that the brain uses to communicate with the body. You need to imagine that wart and see it shrinking. Imagery is the biological connection between the mind and body. As we will see, this is extremely useful in mind body healing.

Imagery Can Involve Negative Visualizations Too

Unfortunately, many of the images popping into our heads do more harm than good. In fact, the most common type of imagery is worry. Because when we worry, what we worry about exists only in our imaginations.

 It is estimated that an average person has 10,000 thoughts or images flashing through his mind each day. At least half of those thoughts are negative, such as anxiety of meeting a quota, a coming speech, job related anxiety, etc. Unharnessed, a steady dose of worry and other negative images can alter your physiology and make you more susceptible to a variety of ailments, ranging from acne to arthritis, headaches to heart disease, ulcers to urinary tract infections.

Your thoughts have a direct influence on the way you feel and behave. If you tend to dwell on sad or negative thoughts, you most likely are not a very happy person. Likewise, if you think that your job is enough to give you a headache, you probably will come home with throbbing temples each day. This is just another clear example of the power the mind exerts over the body.

But if you can learn to direct and control the images in your head, you can help your body heal itself. Our imagination is like a spirited, powerful horse. If it's untamed, it can be dangerous and run you over. But if you learn to use your imagination in a way that is purposeful and directed, it can be a tremendously powerful vehicle to get you where you want to go, including to better health.

Your imagination can be a powerful tool to help you combat stress, tension, and anxiety. You can use visualization to harness the energy of your imagination, and it does not take long-probably just a few weeks-to master the technique. Try to visualize two or three times a day. Most people find it easiest to do in bed in the morning and at night before falling asleep, though with practice you'll be able to visualize whenever and wherever the need arises.

Imagery Had Been In Use in Ancient Civilizations

Imagery has been considered a healing tool in virtually all of the world's cultures and is an integral part of many religions. Navajo Indians, for example, practice an elaborate form of imagery that encourages a person to "see" himself as healthy. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, including Aristotle and Hippocrates believed that images release spirits in the brain that arouse the heart and other parts of the body. They also thought that a strong image of a disease is enough to cause its symptoms.

Visualization and Imagery Has Applications in Sports, Leadership Training, Possibility Thinking and Others

Affirmations and visualizations are used by athletes everyday. It has been suggested by experts such as Dale Carnegie, Robert Schuller and Steven Covey to elicit peak performance in induviduals. Athletes use visualization to enhance their performance, sometimes without realizing it. A golfer may form a mental map of the fairway, imagining precisely where he will place the ball on each shot; a high jumper may visualize every split second of his approach to and leap over the bar; a baseball pitcher may run a mental film of the ball from the time it leaves his hand until it lands in the catcher's glove.

Steven Covey, in his runaway best seller, "Seven Habits of the Most Effective People, suggested that we can use our right brain power of visualization to write an affirmation that will help us become more congruent with our deeper values in our daily life.

According to Covey, a good affirmation has five basic ingredients:

  • It's personal,
  • It's positive,
  • It's present tense,
  • It's visual, and
  • It's emotional.

Using these principles an affirmation may look like the following: "It is deeply satisfying (emotional) that I (personal) respond (present tense) with wisdom, love, firmness, and self-control (positive) when my children misbehave."

Covey then suggest that you visualize with this affirmation for a few minutes each day.

"I can spend a few minutes each day and totally relax my mind and body. I can think about situations in which my children might misbehave. I can visualize them in rich detail. I can feel the texture of the chair I might be sitting on, the floor under my feet, the sweater I'm wearing. I can see the dress my daughter has on, the expression on her face. The more clearly and vividly I can imagine the detail, the more deeply I will experience it, the less I will see it as a spectator.

Then I can see her do something very specific which normally makes my heart pound and my temper start to flare. But instead of seeing my normal response, I can see myself handle the situation with all the love, the power, the self-control I have captured in my affirmation. I can write the program, write the script, in harmony with my values, with my personal mission statement.

And if I do this, day after day my behavior will change. Instead of living out of the scripts given to me by my own parents or by society or by genetics or my environment, I will be living out of the script I have written from my own self-selected value system."

Imagery is very powerful and crosses many disciplines. For example, good leaders are visionaries. They can "visualize" potentials and possibilities. They will plan every detail meticulously in their mind before executing. When they do, usually, it will be done flawlessly, because, most of the glitches would have been worked out during the visualization phase.

Dr. Charles Garfield has done extensive research on peak performers, both in athletics and in business. He became fascinated with peak performance in his work with the NASA program, watching the astronauts rehearse everything on earth, again and again in a simulated environment before they went to space. He decided to study the characteristics of peak performers.

One of the main things his research showed was that almost all of the world-class athletes and other peak performers are visualizers. They see it; they feel it; they experience it before they actually do it. They begin with the end in mind.

You can do it in every area of your life. Before a performance, a sales presentation, a difficult confrontation, or the daily challenge of meeting a goal, see it clearly, vividly, relentlessly, over and over again. Create an internal "comfort zone." Then, when you get into the situation, it isn't foreign. It doesn't scare you.

How Effective Is Imagery? Clinical Studies on the Effectiveness of Imagery

Imagery had been found to be very effective for the treatment of stress. Imagery is at the center of relaxation techniques designed to release brain chemicals that act as your body's natural brain tranquilizers, lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels. By and large, researchers find that these techniques work. Because imagery relaxes the body, doctors specializing in imagery often recommend it for stress-related conditions such as headaches, chronic pain in the neck and back, high blood pressure, spastic colon, and cramping from premenstrual syndrome.

Researchers at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio found that people with cancer who used imagery while receiving chemotherapy felt more relaxed, better prepared for their treatment and more positive about care than those who didn't use the technique.

Several studies suggest that imagery can also boost your immunity. Danish researchers found increased natural killer cell activity among ten college students who imagined that their immune systems were becoming very effective. Natural killer cells are an important part of the immune system because they can recognize and destroy virus-infected cells, tumor cells and other invaders.

In another small study, researchers at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio found that seven people who suffered from recurrent canker sores in their mouths significantly reduced the frequency of their outbreaks after they began visualizing that the sores were bathed in a soothing coating of white blood cells.

Imagery can also help alter menstrual cycles and relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. In a preliminary study, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found that 12 of 15 women, ages 21 to 40, who used imagery for three months lengthened their monthly menstrual cycles by an average of nearly four days and slashed their perceived levels of premenstrual distress in half. They also reported fewer mood swings.

At the University of South Florida in Tampa, researchers asked 19 men and women, ages 56 to 75, who had chronic bronchitis and emphysema to rate their levels of anxiety, depression, fatigue and discomfort before and after they began using imagery. The researchers concluded that imagery significantly improved the overall quality of these people's lives.

A study at Yale demonstrated that patients suffering from severe depression were helped by imagining scenes in which they were praised by people they admired- a clear boost to their self-esteem.

Visualization and other relaxation methods may produce significant benefits, often by helping to ease pain and lift depression. Research is continuing to determine whether even more spectacular results can be achieved.

A controlled study of fifty-five women examined the effects of imagery and relaxation on breast milk production in mothers of infants in a neonatal intensive care unit. They received a twenty-minute audiotape of progressive relaxation followed by guided imagery of pleasant surroundings, milk flowing in the breasts, and the baby's warm skin against theirs. They produced more than twice as much milk as compared to those receiving only routine care.

In another study, a group of metastatic cancer patients using daily imagery for a year achieved significant improvements in NK cell activity and several other measures of immune functioning.

At Michigan State University, researchers found that students could use guided imagery to improve the functioning of certain white cells called neutrophils, important immune cells in defense against bacterial and fungal infection. They could also decrease, but not increase, white cell counts. At one point in the study, a form of imagery intended to increase neutrophil count unexpectedly caused a drop instead. Subsequently, students were taught imagery explicitly intended to keep the neutrophil count steady, while increasing their effectiveness. Both of these goals were achieved.

 Other studies have shown that imagery can lower blood pressure, slow heart rate and help treat insomnia, obesity and phobias.

Two cases are quoted below from literature on the effectiveness of imagery.

A Walk on the Beach

Heidi, thirty-five, was scheduled for a round of chemotherapy for breast cancer. The treatment was to take place on Friday and she and her husband had tickets to fly to Hawaii on Saturday for a week's vacation.

As is routine, she was called into the treatment center for a blood check on the Monday before to make sure her white cell count had recovered enough from the previous treatment to allow her to qualify for the next one. To her shock, she was told that her white count was only about half what it should be and she would probably have to forego her vacation.

For four days she practiced imagery intensively several times a day, concentrating on raising her white count. She used images of the bone marrow releasing a steady, strong flow of white cells into her bloodstream and spreading throughout her body. She also imagined directing her breath into the bone marrow and thereby nourishing the stem cells (that produce the white cells) so that they could grow and release more white cells.

On that Friday, she went in for another blood test. Her white count had more than doubled. She was able to have the treatment and the next day was able to walk on the beach with her husband.

The Vital Fluid

Carol Anne was scheduled to undergo a complicated abdominal surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. Her surgeon told her that patients undergoing this procedure typically lose ten to eleven units of blood.

For several days prior to the surgery, Carol Anne practiced a form of imagery in which she pictured her body going through the surgery without losing any blood, the tissues knitting back together smoothly, no complications, and a speedy recovery. She also imagined the look on the surgeon's face when he realized that no blood had been lost.

The day after the surgery, the surgeon came into her room and congratulated her on how well she had come through the ordeal. To his amazement, she had required only one unit of blood. When she told him of her preparations, he smiled and walked out shaking his head.

Studies On The Effectiveness of Imagery Is Continuing

Office of Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health, are funding the following investigations involving imagery:

  • James Halper of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City is conducting a controlled study of the benefits of guided imagery for patients with asthma.
  • Mary Jasnoski of George Washington University, Washington, D.C., is examining the effects of imagery on the immune system, with potential implications for use in cancer and AIDS.
  • Blair Justice of the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston was funded to conduct a controlled study examining the effects of a group imagery/ relaxation process on immune function and quality of life in breast cancer patients.

Learning the Basics of Imagery

Virtually everyone can successfully use imagery. It's a question of patience and persistence. It's just like learning to play a music instrument or learning to fly an airplane. You put in the time, you put in the discipline, you will be able to do it. It is the same with imagery. Practice, practice and practice. You will be able to do it.

How much time it will take before you begin to see results depends on the severity of your ailment, the vividness of your imagery and your own determination. A person who has a sprained ankle, for example, may get pain relief in just one five-minute imagery session, while it may take weeks for a person who has severe burns to notice any significant pain reduction. For almost any chronic ailment, it's going to take a lot more time for imagery to work.

Most proponents suggest practicing your imagery for 15 to 20 minutes a day initially to ensure that you're learning to do it properly. But as you become more skilled and comfortable with the technique, you'll be able to do it for just a few minutes at a time as needed throughout the day.

The most effective images are the ones that have some meaning to you. When battling tumors, people might imagine that their healthy cells are plump, juicy berries, while their cancerous cells are dried, shriveled pieces of fruit. They might picture their immune system as birds that fly in and pick up and carry away the raisin-like cancer cells, while the rest of the cells flourish. Another common image is that the immune system cells are like silver bullets coming in and annihilating the tumor cells.

Other experts recommend actually personifying your condition and "reasoning" with it. This way you also have a chance to learn from your condition. If you're plagued by headaches, for example, you might imagine your headache as a gremlin tightening a vice across your temples. Ask the gremlin why he's there and what you can do to make him loosen his grip. He might "tell" you that you have had too little sleep, too much junk food, or not enough rest and time away from work. Take his advice, and there is a good chance your headaches will subside, experts say.

 Step By Step Imagery

Studies indicate that imagery works best when it is used in conjunction with a relaxation technique. When your physical body is relaxed, you don't need to be in such conscious control of your mind, and you can give it the freedom to daydream. Meditation, progressive relaxation or yoga is the most common relaxation techniques used with imagery.

Loosen your clothing, take off your shoes, and sit comfortably in a chair. You can also use one of the yoga or meditation postures. Dim the lights, if you prefer. Close your eyes. Take in a few deep breaths. Picture yourself descending an imaginary staircase. With each step, notice that you feel more and more relaxed.

When you feel relaxed, imagine a favorite scene. It could be a beach, a mountain Slope or a particularly enjoyable moment with friends or family. Try to go into this scene each time you practice your imagery. If you can create a special, safe place where nothing can hurt you and you feel secure, it will make you more receptive to other images.

Once you feel comfortable in your favorite scene, gradually direct your mind toward the ailment you're concerned about. Use one of the images

Suggested by experts or allow your mind to create one of its own. Let the image become more vivid and in focus. Don't worry if it seems to fade in and out.

If several images come to mind, choose one and stick with it for that session.

On the other hand, if no images come to mind, try focusing on a different sensation. For instance, imagine hearing fish frying in a skillet or smelling wildflowers in a Meadow. If all else fails, think about how you feel at the moment. Angry? Frustrated? What color is that anger? What image is evoked? Use these feelings to forge images.

Each time you do this, imagine that your ailment is completely cured at the end of the session.

At the end of your session, take a few more deep breaths and picture yourself re-climbing the imaginary staircase and gradually becoming aware of your surroundings. Open your eyes, stretch, smile and go on with your day.

Imagery Techniques

Several different types of imagery are used depending on the application.

Most visualization techniques begin with relaxation, followed by summoning up a mental image. In one simple exercise known as painting, you close your eyes, cover them with your palms, and concentrate on the color black. Try to make the color fill your whole visual field, screening out any distracting images. To reduce stress, try concentrating first on a color you associate with tension, and then mentally replace it with one that you find soothing; for example the color red changing to blue. Or you may find it more relaxing to picture a peaceful natural scene, such as the unruffled surface of a pond, gently rolling hills, a serene waterfall, evening in a beach watching the sun set, etc.

In a technique called guided imagery, participants visualize a goal they want to achieve, then imagine themselves going through the process of achieving it. Severely ill patients, for example, are urged to picture their internal organs and imagine them free of disease, or to picture tumors shrinking, or invading microorganisms succumbing to aggressive immune cells.

We will look at the important ones here.

Guided Waking Imagery.

In this technique, devised by the psychoanalyst Leuner, the patient it taught to visualize a standard series of scenes such as a meadow, a mountain, a house, and a swamp. Later, the patient's imaginings are examined for sources of conflict, irrational beliefs, and interpersonal problems.

Autogenic Abreactions.

Here the patient is asked to assume an attitude of passive acceptance toward his mental experiences. In this condition, the patient is to verbalize, without restriction, all the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that occur to him. Strong affect, often with marked emotional and facial involvement is likely to emerge. The session continues until the effective discharge has run its course.

Covert Sensitization.

This technique is based on the reinforcement paradigm. It postulates that imagery processes can be modified according to the same principles that govern the modification of overt, visible behavior. In covert sensitization, the patient first imagines engaging in some behavior he wishes to change, say, an addiction. This is quickly followed by the imagining of a highly unpleasant event. Thus, the addictive behavior becomes paired with a highly aversive event and therefore is less likely to occur in the future.

Covert Behavior Rehearsal.

In this method, the individual systematically visualizes the desired correct coping behavior. This technique has seen much use in sports.

See Also:

The Truth About Affirmations
Affirmations are a way of tricking the subconscious into giving us what we want. This kind of mental trickery keeps many people stuck in the very states they are trying to escape. If it is true that what we resist persists, then affirmations can perpetuate the very things we are trying to eliminate.

The Strangest Secret
Your belief system, like your computer, doesn't judge or even question what you input; it merely accepts your thoughts as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Think thoughts of defeat or failure and you're bound to feel discouraged. Continuous thoughts of worry, anxiety and fear are unhealthy and often manifest in the body as stress, panic attacks and depression.

Imagery / Visualization for Healing Diseases/Conditions

Related Sites: Imagery/Visualization for Stress

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