If you’re looking for a way to ease chronic pain, speed the healing process, or reduce anxiety and stress, consider guided imagery or visualization. It’s an alternative therapy that’s noninvasive and drug-free, and you can practice it on your own.

What Is Guided Imagery?

Visualization or therapeutic relaxation is a process that affects every aspect of your body. During guided imagery, you control your breathing and relax your muscles. You focus on something specific – such as a therapist’s voice or the instructions on a DVD or audio tape. You enter into a state of deep relaxation, success, and wholeness – similar to meditation.

In guided imagery, you consciously imagine something – and that something depends on what your goal is. If your goal is healing from cancer, for instance, you’d visualize your cells and organs strong, powerful, and healthy. If it’s stress reduction before surgery, you’d imagine the surgery from beginning to end – with a capable surgeon, caring nurses, and successful procedures. You could even visualize getting a great night’s sleep before the surgery, enjoying the drive to the hospital, and relaxing in your own bed at home after the surgery.

How Does Guided Imagery Work?

Visualization or therapeutic relaxation sends direct, positive messages to the emotional control center of the brain. Those messages then travel to your immune system and autonomic nervous system, which affects your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rates.

Guided Imagery is progressive muscle relaxation. When you relax and visualize the outcome you want, you focus on positive images and emotions. You let positive hormones flood your body, and you concentrate on keeping that positive energy strong.

Your body can't differentiate between reality and thoughts. That is, if you imagine being terrified or furious, your body immediately responds by creating the appropriate hormones and responses. In guided imagery or visualization, you imagine positive events -- and your body responds in healthy ways.

Proven Health Benefits of Guided Imagery Visualization Can:


Lower psychological distress for cancer patients. 

Reduce chronic pain in people of all ages.

Decrease blood pressure.

Reduce psychological distress in pre-operative patients.

Help smokers quit smoking.

Help with depression and various mood disorders.

Prevent or lighten migraines or other headaches.

Eases stress and anxiety.


Additional notes on Theraputic Guided Imagery:

Guided Imagery is a flexible intervention whose efficacy has been indicated through a large body of research over many decades in counseling and allied fields. Guided imagery was defined by Bresler and Rossman, co-founders of the Academy for Guided Imagery, as a, "range of techniques from simple visualization and direct imagery-based suggestion through metaphor and storytelling" (2003). It is not a new approach to helping but well established in Native American and other indigenous traditions; Hinduism, Judeo-Christian, and other religious traditions; and traditional Chinese medicine, to name a few historically-based uses. Though guided imagery is currently understood to be mainly an "alternative" or "complementary" therapeutic technique, it has been used in psychotherapy for over a century.

When writing on the history of guided imagery, Schoettle (1980) described many early 20th century examples of its use, starting with therapeutically working with daydreams. For example, Schoettle pointed out that Freud's psychoanalysis is based on the, "unraveling of the patient's fantasies, daydreams, and dreams" and, "continues to be a cornerstone in current analytical techniques" . In the late 1960s, Joseph Wolpe introduced several imagery-related techniques in behavior-modification therapy: systematic desensitization, aversive-imagery methods, symbolic-modeling techniques and implosive therapy. Since that time there have been many advocates of guided imagery including the Simontons, Achterberg, Klapish, Lawlis, Oyle, Bresler, and Rossman (Schoettle, 1980).

Guided Imagery can be used to learn and rehearse skills, more effectively problem solve through visualizing possible outcomes of different alternatives, and increase creativity and imagination. It has also been shown to affect physiological processes. As described in the remainder of this section, in addition to its use in counseling, guided imagery has also been used with very positive results in sports training, rehabilitative medicine, and healthcare.

Guided Imagery has also been used in sports, especially to improve motivation and performance as well as reducing pain during healing. For example, Thelwell and Greenless studied competitive endurance using mental skills training, including goal setting, relaxation, imagery and self-talk, for athletes preparing for a triathlon. This training enhanced competitive performance, increased motivation, and contributed to athletes' management of pain (2003).

Guided Imagery has been studied extensively as a therapeutic tool in counseling. For example, it has been applied to grief therapy (Melges & DeMaso, 1980) and decision-making and identity issues in individuals with eating disorders (Hill, 2001), to name just two of thousands.

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