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Believing Is Seeing

Using guided imagery to imagine good health may help you feel better

SATURDAY, Dec. 22, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- What you see may not always be what you get.

But what you think you see just might get you what you want, particularly if what you want is a healthier, less stressful life.

That's the tenet behind the practice of guided imagery, a rapidly growing form of meditative relaxation therapy that uses the power of the mind to help the body deal with physical changes linked to stress.

The goal of the therapy, experts say, is to use all the senses -- including touch, smell, sight and sound -- to prompt the body into a deep sense of peace and tranquility. Doing so helps reduce or eliminate at least some troubling physical symptoms associated with stress.

"Stress can cause a wide range of health problems that can reach from head to toe, including migraines, an upset stomach, back aches, general aches and pains, fatigue. There isn't a part of the body that can't be affected by stress," says Dr. Shari Lusskin, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center.

Anything that can help the mind relax, Lusskin adds, will reduce levels of stress and that, in turn, will help the body feel better.

For those whose illnesses -- high blood pressure or angina, for example -- are affected even more by stress, guided imagery can be even more beneficial, Lusskin says.

The basis of guided imagery is deep relaxation. When the mind is relaxed, say experts, we are more accepting of calming images and thoughts. And it is those visuals that can affect physiologic responses within the body.

"The patient is asked to imagine a peaceful scene, a place that is comforting and consoling to them, a kind of oasis where they can imagine themselves free of problems, particularly health problems such as pain," says Dr. Mehmet Oz, director of the Cardiovascular Institute at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, and one of a growing number of physicians who believe guided imagery has positive health benefits.

When the mind "digests" these peaceful images, the effects are felt in the body. And therein lies the therapy's restorative properties, Oz says.

But is feeling better tantamount to getting better? And are any tangible health benefits to be gained from guided imagery?

It all depends on how you view the objective scientific results.

In at least one study conducted by Oz and a team of heart surgeons, patients awaiting a heart transplant underwent guided imagery classes for six weeks and were then tested against another group that had done no relaxation therapy.

At the study's conclusion, those patients who had performed the imagery exercises reported feeling better -- they could breathe easier, were less fatigued and believed they could do more, says Oz. However, objective tests designed to measure real improvement in body function, such as the ability to walk faster or farther, failed to prove they actually were any better.

Although some may see the result as failure for the technique, Oz takes the half-full glass approach to the finding.

"If you're dying of heart failure, is it more important that you walk faster or that you feel better? I say both are important. But if you can only get one of the two, and guided imagery can help you accomplish that, then in my book, it's worth doing," he says.

Lusskin agrees. "When the mind is relaxed, the body always feels better, no matter what the ailment or problem. And if guided imagery can help a patient feel better while they are ill, then that's a big plus," she says.

In fact, that's what doctors are finding. Researchers at Ohio State University, for example, reported that cancer patients using guided imagery while undergoing chemotherapy felt better overall about their treatments and were better able to cope with side effects.

At Michigan State University, students taught guided imagery were able to actually improve the function of immune cells called neutrophils, which are important in the body's defense against certain bacterial infections and funguses.

Many hospitals around the nation are now instituting guided imagery programs as part of routine patient care. At Marin General Hospital, in Greenbrae, Calif., for example, free guided imagery sessions up to 50 minutes in length are routinely offered to patients in the hospital, while an outpatient program is offered to community residents.

Because the principles of guided imagery are fairly simple to understand and use, there are an abundance of self-help vehicles to get you started, including tapes, CDs and books.

However, most experts say that if the problems you want to tackle are significant -- either from a physical or emotional standpoint -- it's probably a good idea to have at least a few sessions with a therapist who specializes in guided imagery before you embark on your own.

What To Do

For an overview of guided imagery, including how and when it can help -- and when it can't -- as well as advice on choosing a therapist, visit the Yahoo health center.

To learn more about how to use guided imagery in your life, and to try out a program for free, click here.

SOURCES: Interviews with Shari Lusskin, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry, New York University Medical Center, New York City; Mehmet Oz, M.D., director, Cardiovascular Institute, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, New York City
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