What is guided imagery?
Guided imagery (also called guided visualization) is a therapy that harnesses your imagination to help you handle stress and illness. With the assistance of a psychotherapist, nurse, or doctor, patients visualize positive images that can lift their mood and reduce their stress. If they can picture themselves in a mountain meadow or on a beach instead of in a hospital bed or doctors office, they may feel more relaxed and ready to face their illness. Images are more than just mental pictures. Patients who can imagine other sensory details -- sounds, smells, textures -- can become even more immersed in the scene and the emotions that go with it.
Guided imagery is often used to treat stress-related conditions, such as anxiety, depression, headaches, chronic pain, and irritable bowel syndrome. It can also help patients coping with the stress of cancer and other serious illnesses.
What can I expect?
Some people practice guided imagery on their own with the help of CDs or DVDs (available at many bookstores), but if you're just getting started, it would help to have an experienced guide such as a psychotherapist, nurse, or doctor. The session may start with a relaxation exercise, such as deep breathing. You'll be asked to picture yourself in a safe, calm place. Then you'll start focusing on the problem at hand. If you have headaches, for example, you may be asked to describe the images that come to your mind when you think about the pain. After exploring these images, you'll try to take control by replacing them with other, more soothing scenes. Once you feel comfortable with the process, you can try it at home.
Why does it work?
Whether you're recovering from surgery or trying to overcome depression, stress can drag you down both physically and emotionally. Steering your thoughts in a more positive direction could give you a buffer against stress. In this way, guided imagery can help prevent all sorts of stress-related pain and suffering. A study at the Cleveland Clinic found that surgical patients who used guided imagery needed less pain medications than patients who didn't.
How can I find a qualified practitioner?
To find a doctor, nurse, or psychotherapist who has been trained in guided imagery in your area, visit the website if the Academy for Guided Imagery at www.acadgi.com.
University of California San Diego. Complimentary and alternative therapies for cancer patients: Guided imagery. 2011. http://cancer.ucsd.edu/outreach/PublicEducation/CAMs/guidedimagery.asp
Cleveland Clinic. Guided Imagery. 2010. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/departments/integrativemedicine/guided_imagery_facts.aspx
Guided health imagery for smoking cessation and long-term abstinence. Journal of Nursing Scholarship. 37(3):245-50. 2005.
Cleveland Clinic. Stress, Stress Management, and Smoking. http://www.clevelandclinic.org/health/health-info/docs/0300/0355.asp