Whether you’re experiencing chronic stress, an acute bout with anxiety, headaches, depression, or an inability to focus, guided imagery could help you recalibrate your mind and discover a greater sense of balance and emotional well-being.
Guided imagery is best described as a stress management technique that safely recalibrates the brain and allows you to replace negative emotions with feelings of positivity and stability. It’s performed by using your imagination to picture a specific place, person, experience, or event that makes you feel happy, relaxed, and at peace. It’s intended to ignite all of your senses and, when performed correctly, can deliver profound results.
For example, you might picture yourself walking in a lush, shaded forest along a smooth pathway. To your right, there’s a babbling brook coursing through rounded rocks, leading to a beautiful lagoon. As you walk down the path towards the lagoon, you hear birds chirping. A cool breeze rushes through the tall trees and creates a deep “whoosh” sound that reverberates deep in your core. You breathe in the fresh mountain air, which is mixed with the pleasant aroma of wildflowers…
Guided imagery can be quick and to the point, or it can be much more extensive and involved. It can be done as a self-guided exercise, or as part of a therapy session. It’s useful for both individuals and groups, and is known to provide a myriad of health benefits.
While skeptics have tried to take aim at guided imagery a time or two, they’re quickly shut down. Mounting bodies of research and anecdotal evidence show that guided imagery can be a powerful tool that produces both physical and cognitive benefits. Here are just a few of them:
The first major benefit of guided imagery - and the one that most people are seeking - is a decrease in stress and anxiety.
According to a 2014 study of women with fibromyalgia, individuals who do guided imagery report a significant decrease in feelings of stress and related symptoms like pain and fatigue.
In a separate 2017 study, patients in a progressive care unit were given 30-minute guided imagery sessions. The results were similar to the positive effects of a 15-minute massage.
Countless other studies have been conducted on everyone from college students to cancer patients, and the results ring true across the board: Guided imagery is an effective tool for reducing feelings of overwhelm and putting the brain into a more balanced state of mind.
Guided imagery is frequently used by patients who experience bouts with depression. And while it’s often utilized in conjunction with other therapies, it’s known to be quite effective on its own.
A 2014 study explains that depression is often closely correlated with negative mental images. And by filling the brain with positive signals, guided imagery sessions are able to counteract the elements that make individuals feel down in the dumps.
A separate 2019 study shows that a week of daily guided imagery sessions is associated with a reduction in depressive symptoms in individuals with cancer. These patients also reported less pain and anxiety as a result of the sessions.
Decades of research show that stress is able to worsen the perception of pain in the body. And guided imagery is able to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, which in turn leads to pain reduction.
A 2017 study specifically discovered a correlation between guided imagery and pain management after orthopedic surgery. Those who were administered guided imagery sessions reported feeling less pain than those who were completely reliant on pain medication and other traditional methods.
In a 2019 study, guided imagery combined with progressive muscle relaxation was shown to ease pain in patients suffering from various forms of cancer.
Guided imagery has been shown to improve sleep quality in people who have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep - particularly those who deal with stress, anxiety, depression, and/or chronic pain.
In a 2015 study of older adults, a mindfulness practice - which included guided imagery - improved participant’s sleep quality. The research team theorized that mindfulness reduces stress, which makes it easier to sleep.
Guided imagery clearly yields an array of benefits. The question most people have is, how? How do you perform guided imagery to tap into the physical and cognitive perks?
While there are a variety of methodologies and approaches, here’s a basic overview of what the process looks like:
So much of guided imagery is about putting yourself in the right physical environment to have success. The precise location isn’t as important as the characteristics of the location. People can have success in closets, bathrooms, cars, bedrooms, park benches, or even a seat on an airplane. It’s all about finding a space that’s quiet and free of distractions. (Some people need total isolation, while others are able to relax in a public place.)
With the right physical environment, it’s time to conjure up your “setting” or “scene.” This is the environment where you’ll take yourself in your guided imagery session. It could be a forest, beach, church, childhood home, or any other place you feel comfortable and relaxed.
The next step is to calm your body. It’s nearly impossible to engage in meaningful guided imagery if you’re tense. If you have trouble coming down from a heightened sense of stress, you can try progressive muscle relaxation to ease the tension.
With your body relaxed, you can turn your attention to quieting your mind. Discard all thoughts - good, bad, or otherwise - and create an empty space for the scene or setting of your choice. Don’t be judgmental of the fact that your mind is cluttered. Acknowledge that it’s filled with noise and hit the pause button. This can take a few minutes.
With the proper physical environment and idyllic setting, a relaxed body, and a quiet mind, you’re ready to begin guided imagery.
The goal is to immerse yourself in the story and to focus on the details of the environment. Every detail should be pleasing to the senses. (And you should include as many of the five senses as possible.)
Guided imagery takes practice to perfect. It might feel strange at first (and you have to be okay with this). Over time, you’ll learn what works, which will allow you to increase the efficacy of these sessions gradually.
With that being said, here are some helpful tips to perfect the art of guided imagery for your physical and emotional well-being:
One of the first things you should do is identify the type of guided imagery you want to use. There are a variety of methods and each one has a slightly different “feel.”
One method is to self-guide with nothing but your imagination. This approach is the most difficult, but can also be the most rewarding. It involves “creating” the story and populating the scene as you go.
Another method involves reading a script that someone else has written. This one is convenient and allows you to move at your own pace, but also requires you to have your eyes opened. For most people, this dampens the efficacy of guided imagery.
A third option, which is most practical and effective for beginners, is to listen to a guided imagery session, story, or soundtrack. This enables you to close your eyes and follow along.
Make you’re comfortable in your physical environment. The last thing you want to do is find yourself in the middle of a guided imagery session, only to have your arm fall asleep or feel the sudden need to shift your body weight.
If you’re most comfortable sitting in a meditative pose, do that. If you’re more relaxed on a bed, try that. It’s all up to you.
Breathing is a very important element of guided imagery. For best results, use deep diaphragmatic breathing. This is where you let your belly expand and contract with every breath. (Your shoulders should not rise and fall during deep breathing. If there’s a lot of shoulder movement, this is an indication that you’re carrying tension in your body.)
Guided imagery is more than a story. You’re not a passive observer - you’re an engaged participant. You are the story. So make sure you focus on sensory details.
You’re not just swimming in the lake. You’re dipping your toes into the cool water on a blistering hot day. And as you immerse yourself in the clear blue water, you feel a cooling sensation rise up your body and instantly relax your body. You reach for your frozen drink and the rich taste of fresh strawberries captivates your palate…
Do you see the difference? Every little detail needs as much sensory detail attached to it as possible.
If you’re using guided imagery from a script or audioscape, you don’t have to worry about how the story ends. Everything is taken care of for you. But if you’re doing a self-guided session where you’re conjuring up the scene and controlling the experience, it’s smart to keep the story open-ended. With no goal or intended outcome in mind, you’re free to explore as you see fit. This also gives you the freedom to seamlessly exit the scene when you feel it’s time to return to a more conscious state.
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