For a moment, envision your pain or exhaustion or anxiety as a tangible object – a boulder, for example, that’s taken up residency on your shoulders, making it difficult to simply live each day comfortably. Picture that burdensome stone being lifted off of your body and embrace the enveloping of freedom and relief that follows, welcoming the ability to finally breathe easily again. Even after the moment ends, you are capable of carrying that liberating energy into the rest of your day. This is the potential impact of using guided imagery techniques.
Also called imagery or visualization, guided imagery is the meditative practice of calling on mental images—through all five senses—to invoke relaxation. The practice aims to improve emotional and physical health around a particular area of concern by imagining a desired outcome. It operates under the belief of a mind-body connection wherein the power of thought has the ability to influence one’s bodily health.
Just as negative or anxious thoughts have shown to cause harmful consequences toward physical wellbeing (such as high blood pressure, chronic stress and a weaker immune system), positive and relaxing thoughts encourage the body to stay strong and be at ease. The last thing anyone wants is to make their body weaker when it needs to be strong, and practices like guided imagery can help you cope better with overwhelming and draining ruminations while in treatment. It can even boost your immune system.
Variations of guided imagery have been around for centuries, with origins as a healing tool used by ancient Greeks and Tibetans. Fast forward through time to the 1980s, when the practice became Westernized and began to take shape as the guided imagery techniques that we’re now familiar with. This is when health professionals started to establish support for guided imagery as an effective tool in pain management for chronic pain, cancer and other illnesses. Advocation of the practice led to the publishing of materials that explored the positive mental and physical benefits of guided imagery.
Today, resources in the therapy sphere like GoodTherapy herald the practice as an established approach in complementary and alternative medicine that is backed by studies proving its worth when used in the therapeutic process. According to the Rogel Cancer Center, “in many instances even 10 minutes of imagery can reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol and glucose levels in the blood, and heighten short-term immune cell activity” as well as “considerably reduce morphine use [after surgery].”
In 2015, Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal published a study on the effects that relaxation with guided imagery has on the physical and mental wellbeing of active breast cancer patients. Half of the 65 participants received relaxation with guided imagery training before chemotherapy with the instructions to continue the training at home for seven days, 20 minutes a day, after chemotherapy. That group showed notable decreases in insomnia, physical pain, anxiety and depression compared to the group that did not receive guided imagery training, and the test concluded that “one week of relaxation with guided imagery can significantly improve” such symptoms.
Breast cancer warriors aren’t the only ones who can benefit from the practice. Lara Krawchuk, a clinical social worker and therapist based in Pennsylvania, specializes in oncology and has been using guided imagery with cancer warriors of all types for 25 years. She says it has proved useful in supporting patients’ recovery from surgery, and that patients who practice guided imagery before and after a procedure tend to need fewer pain medications.
Beyond physical benefits, Krawchuk praises its effects on a warrior’s mental and emotional wellbeing, too. “It can also lower anxiety by offering a safe refuge inside oneself through challenging times of life,” she says. “This can be very empowering to patients forced into very vulnerable states by acute or chronic illness.”
Guided imagery can be done in a therapy setting or alone, but Krawchuk and other resources recommend starting out with a professional. “Guided imagery with a therapist is very powerful because of the processing that can be done during and after imagery,” Krawchuk says. “Insights gleaned from imagery can be really life-altering, and a therapist can help keep a client facing deep wounds safe if images bring forth powerful emotion.” A professional can also offer you verbal guidance throughout the process, which may be easier than following a script on your own initially, and the instruction ensures that individuals get the most value out of the practice.
Guided imagery is designed to impact both body and mind. As you create mental images through sight, sound, touch, smell and/or taste, your body should begin relaxing with controlled, slow breathing and eased muscles. The entire exercise only takes about 10 to 20 minutes, and when used with a professional is considered part of a regular treatment session, so there typically won’t be a separate bill, according to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
For cancer warriors specifically, guided imagery is often centered on relieving one’s physical pain from illness or procedures and emotional or mental distress. A therapist may encourage you to picture a place or idea that is peaceful to you while engaging all your senses in various ways. They may also have you envision your pain or anxieties as a tangible object that is physically affecting you, then instruct you to conjure up a counter object that can take the distress away.
Ann Harper, a nurse and teacher who was diagnosed in 2013 with aggressive thyroid cancer that metastasized in 2015, practices guided imagery while awaiting further treatment. In doing so, she has found the mind to be very powerful. “I pictured little machine guns traveling through my body and blowing up all the cancer cells,” she says, describing her approach. “It felt very gratifying to do this and I believe it helped.” Harper says another effective approach is to imagine a scenario in the future where you are cancer free as the desired outcome. Having a goal encourages your body to stay motivated and fight.
Practicing guided imagery alone is not recommended for those who may be emotionally vulnerable or experiencing dysregulation from trauma or deep grief. For those who feel safe to engage in guided imagery on their own, Krawchuk recommends the library of self-administered programs at healthjourneys.com, created by renowned social worker Belleruth Naparstek who is considered an innovator in the specialty. YouTube is an additional option for those seeking accessible and free scripts. You can also find further resources on guided imagery at various cancer centers’ websites, like Dana Farber.
While guided imagery cannot cure cancer, it can help warriors feel invigorated and optimistic while preparing their immune system to take on the next steps in medical treatment. “I would recommend guided imagery to anyone who has cancer,” Harper says. “My philosophy is, ‘If it doesn’t hurt and might help, why not?’”