What is guided imagery? The ultimate guide
Do you remember being a kid and daydreaming about another life? Being a superhero, a famous actor or even an animal?
Compare that to how different your life looks now with your stress levels skyrocketing.
Well you can go back to those carefree days. You can tap into that same imagination with guided imagery therapy. It can help with a myriad of problems from anxiety to pain management. Keep reading to find out how.
What is guided imagery?
Guided imagery, or visualization, has been around for donkey’s years (that’s about 3000 years in formal terms). And it is a form of relaxation therapy. Some people call it a guided meditation.
It requires you to tap into the power of your mind to imagine a safe, calming image. In guided imagery you are using your imagination and creating a scene in your mind. It is not hypnotherapy, you are not under the influence of someone else. You are in full control the entire time.
I like the description told to me by The Honest Guys that ‘it may be rather like having a bedtime story told to you when you were young, or having ‘idealistic’ imaginings of places that make you feel comfortable and safe, places you can retreat to in your mind that are far away from stress, anxiety, debt, work and all the demands that life brings.’
‘Guided’ refers to you listening to a practitioner read out a script that takes you on a mental journey, such as my grounding meditation you can find here. It can take the form of a simple story where you are the main character. But it can also take a free form style, where you decide where you mind goes.
You visualize a scene playing out in your mind. But you can use your mind to involve the other senses, such as imagining smells, tastes, sounds or textures. This may help to improve the mental image. Master guided imagery producers such as The Honest Guys do this by introducing sounds to enhance your use of senses.
Recordings of these are available to use at any time when it is convenient to you such as through YouTube. Or you may find your therapist chooses to do a guided imagery with you during a session. Guided imagery recordings can be provided with or without music depending on your preference.
How guided imagery works
Your brain cannot tell the difference between real and imagined scenes. If you imagine you are relaxing on a tropical beach, your body acts as if you are and starts to feel warmer, more relaxed and the heart rate decreases.
Imagine right now, cutting up a lime. And sucking on a segment. Your body reacts as if you are actually eating a piece of lime. You may actually ‘taste’ the bitterness and even shudder or grimace. This is guided imagery.
You trick your brain into feeling relaxed by imagining you’re in a very relaxed and calm environment.
Learning to use guided imagery therapy
When I first began my journey into a career as a Clinical Psychologist, one of my Consultant’s had us practice reading guided imagery scripts to each other. My colleague and I read them out to each other in fits of giggles.
We tried so hard not to laugh, but our script consisted of a moment where a lamb skips happily across a field. And we just couldn’t hold it in anymore.
I came back to using guided imagery when I was a mom to a toddler and feeling very frustrated about the wrestling match at bedtime.
So I started to make up stories for my son, just like parents have done at bedtimes for thousands of years, but I added in some relaxation prompts and turned it into a guided imagery script.
He not only fell asleep without prolonged fighting but he begged for a story every night.
Guided imagery therapy
Guided imagery allows you to enter a relaxed state of mind. But you can also be guided to visualize your issue, whether that’s pain, cancer or anxiety as an actual form. And interact with it. The insights you gain from this interaction can be very revealing.
You may visit a ‘calming sanctuary’, speak with ‘an inner guide’ or watch your pain melt away in a healing light.
You may find yourself coming up with ideas you’d never thought of before when you feel this relaxed and open-minded. These are not suggestions planted by the therapist, but your own thoughts and feelings you are listening to.
If two people were to follow the exact same guided imagery script, they will have two different experiences. Because your experiences in life determine how you ‘see’ the image in your mind.
Guided imagery research for cancer
In 2004, Prince Charles called for more research into complementary and alternative therapies when treating cancer. His comments angered many doctors who thought that encouraging guided imagery and relaxation therapies would lead patients to shun the medical treatment.
But research has happened. And it has shown that guided imagery is now a popular and useful complementary therapy when used alongside medical treatment for cancer. Most doctors now readily encourage guided imagery to cope with the side effects of chemotherapy, and to keep their patients relaxed and positive during this stressful life event.
In addition to the relaxation effects, some studies have started to examine whether guided imagery can improve the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
A large randomized study by Eremin et al., (2009) showed guided imagery could benefit women with breast cancer undergoing multimodal therapy, by activating anti-cancer immunological cells before and after treatment.
Another study by Lengacher et al. (2013) showed that the use of a 4-week guided imagery program benefited the immune systems of women in stage 0, 1 or 2 breast cancer. In particular, activating the NK cells, known to remove cancer cells.
Even though it’s not known if this helps fight the cancer cells directly, it leads to a better quality of life for the patient. In fact, it supports the idea that guided imagery intervention before surgery can improve immune function in women undergoing surgical treatment for breast cancer.
So although no one is claiming that guided imagery heals cancer, it has long been known that there is a relationship between psychological stress and the lowered ability of the immune system. And guided imagery is one relaxation therapy that reduces stress.
Other guided imagery research
You can use your imagination through guided imagery to reduce stress or anxiety. When people with high blood pressure do not respond to drugs or suffer side-effects, relaxation therapy may be prescribed as an alternative.
Mind -body techniques are increasingly being proved to decrease blood pressure and decrease anxiety and stress.
Over 30 years ago, Herbert Benson wrote a book called The Relaxation Response. The medical field did not respond well to it at first because he showed the general public how to reduce their stress with relaxation without medication. He demonstrated that relaxation made physical changes to the body such as decreased respiration rate and heart rate.
More recently Bhasin et al (2018) studied mind-body interventions such as meditation and the results showed that the relaxation response reduced blood pressure.
Benefits of guided imagery for you
Guided imagery therapy can help you reduce stress. Many people enjoy using this method of relaxation because it is quite easy to do and find it beneficial and even pleasurable.
Guided imagery is the easiest of all the relaxation therapies to follow, and it’s easy to find on YouTube. Most guided imagery scripts on YouTube are called guided meditations. But some are better than others.
You have to take the time to find an audio that suits you, with a voice you like to listen to, one that has the right type of music for you and takes you to a nice, safe place. But once you find a guided imagery meditation you enjoy, you can stick with it.
One of my favorite YouTube channels for guided imagery meditations is The Honest Guys. The Honest Guys have a talent for creating fantasy worlds where you can relax. You can tell they really enjoy what they do. They have been producing these meditations for many years now and have built up a large community of people who use their meditations to reduce stress. I recommend starting with one of their most popular guided imagery meditations, The Cottage In The Snow.
See if it works for you. If not, you might want to try a free form visualization. Where you decide what you want to achieve and create your own vision in your head to make that happen.
Next, I’ll show you how to do a guided imagery or a free style visualization and enjoy the benefits of guided imagery for yourself.
How to do guided imagery
- Sit or lay down in a quiet place and close your eyes.
- Focus on your breath and slow down your breath.
- Visualize in your mind a scene you feel calm about or brings up good memories, it could be real or imagined. It could be in nature or in a cozy, calm indoor space. Hear as well as see. Perhaps you imagine hearing birds chirp or the sound of a running river. Pay attention to your other senses in your imaginary world.
- If you have a specific issue, such as pain, an illness, stress or anxiety, you can imagine what you would look and feel like if that problem went away.
- What would your world be like? How would you interact with other people? What activities might you enjoy doing?
- Imagine yourself doing an activity that you really want to do, but your difficulty stops you from doing it. For example, if you have social anxiety, but would love to one day be able to go to your friend’s wedding. Imagine the event, and you being your most lovable, effervescent self. Enjoying the party and mingling with others. See yourself as relaxed and having fun.
- Picture yourself in your mind and see others reacting to you. See everything in your scene with bright colors and try to imagine the scents and tastes of the event.
- Stay with this for as long as you like, then take some slow breaths, wiggle you fingers, bat your eyelids open and come back to the here and now. If you are so inclined, write down any thoughts that came up for you.
What if I find guided imagery difficult?
There are some of you that can’t envision the scene described to you, in the way you think it should look. Perhaps, you feel you are doing something wrong. You may ‘feel’ the scene instead, and that is fine.
One article suggests that only 55% of the population is wired for visualization.
It may be that visualization is not your primary sense, maybe you prefer to use a different sense for imagination. A mental image does not have to be primarily visual. Try using some different senses when following a guided imagery script.
The results depend on the person. If you are someone who just doesn’t feel the safety and relaxation when doing a guided imagery session you may prefer a more concrete meditation or method of relaxation. Something like progressive muscle relaxation , yoga, Tai Chi or QiGong.
Guided imagery YouTube
At Generation Calm, I enjoy creating various guided imagery scripts and recording them for people to use. One of them could help you to relax. I welcome suggestions on topics, music and lengths of meditations. So please, let me know on YouTube of your preferences.
You can use guided imagery for stress relief but it requires that you be open-minded and think outside the box. Some may feel that it is too airy-fairy to produce any real results.
Guided imagery has powerful psychological and biological effects on your body. I say, try it a couple of times before you decide it won’t work for you.
3 ways to use guided imagery today
If you have 30 minutes
Try The Cottage guided meditation from The Honest Guys.
If you have 5 minutes
When you have a moment to yourself today, close your eyes and remember a place in your life that gives you good memories. For me, it’s the Great Orme in LLandudno, the place of my childhood vacations. Picture your safe place in as much detail as possible.
If you have 1 minute
Use imagery to imagine a task you need to get done. See yourself doing it successfully and with the best result ever. For example, if you have been worrying about a meeting you need to chair, paint a vivid picture where you can watch the meeting going well and put yourself in the picture.
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