|Guided imagery, a technique used for centuries, is now increasingly being used in personal, professional and healthcare settings as a powerful tool for stress management and coping.
Guided imagery is a mind-body intervention aimed at easing stress, and promoting a sense of peace and tranquillity at a stressful or difficult time in someone's life. It is a process of incorporating the "power of the mind" to assist the body to heal, maintain health or relax by way of an inner communication involving all senses, (i.e. visual, touch, smell, sight, sound). It forms a balance between the mind, body and spirit.
Imagery has had a remarkable affect on heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, brain waves, body temperature, intestinal motility, sexual arousal and hormonal balances. Certain symptoms and illnesses seem to be more receptive to imagery than others. Conditions caused or aggravated by stress often respond well to imagery suggestions, (i.e., angina, blood pressure, blood sugar, cardiac symptoms, headaches, pain, gastrointestinal disorders, respiratory conditions, etc.).
Relaxation is essential for imagery to be successful as it allows the mind to be open and receptive to new information. Not only does it reduce muscle tension, but also enhances the production of images and triggers the unconscious, which stimulates the emotions. Research suggests that the physiological impact of relaxation may be the result of its effects on cortisol, a hormone released by the body in response to stress. Although the release of cortisol is helpful during the "fight or flight" response, its continual, prolonged release in response to daily stresses can inhibit the immune system and slow tissue repair.
It has been shown that when the mind is still, it is clear and more open to suggestions. It is then able to cooperate in positive images and suggestions that may enhance physical and emotional healing. Therefore, imagery is most successful when the mind and body are quiet and still. Imagery induces an "altered state" that enables messages to travel more easily from our minds to our bodies. Herbert Benson, M.D., of Harvard Medical School and founder of The Mind/Body Medical Institute, entitled this phenomenon the "relaxation response".
Imagery can enhance coping with lifestyle changes (i.e. losses, job changes, and illnesses), relationships and attitude adjustments. It may be of assistance with weight loss programs, smoking cessation or with conditions that require medical or surgical interventions. It can be an avenue to identify and communicate one's inner most feelings and be beneficial to anyone needing assistance with a stressful or difficult time.
Guided imagery may be practiced independently, with a coach or with an audio or videotape. Although a one-on-one session with a person may prove to be the most personal way of providing the intervention, it is not always possible or realistic.
In addition, many people feel uncomfortable "opening up" or expressing their fears to others. The use of an audiotape offers them privacy and contributes to the psychological and spiritual well being by helping them find meaning and direction. An audiotape can be general, it does not need to specifically discuss illness, procedures, surgery, or pain. Family members also encouraged to listen as well.
Guided imagery provides an opportunity for people to directly focus on positive thoughts and images, thus allowing a much welcomed "temporary mental escape". People often call imagery their "mini vacation in their mind."
Clinical studies have indicated that encouraging patients to listen to imagery during anesthesia induction and/or medical or surgical procedures has decreased anxiety and stress levels significantly. It has been demonstrated to reduce the need for large doses of medication, thus reducing side effects and decreasing the recovery time frame.
How to use guided imagery:
The primary aim of guided imagery is to "gently guide" the person to a state where their mind is calm, silent and still. A common guided imagery technique begins with a general relaxation process asking the person to slowly close their eyes and focus on their breathing. They are encouraged to relax, clear their mind, and surround themselves in images that are peaceful and calm.
When using guided imagery by way of an audiotape, soothing music and tranquil sounds of nature may be superimposed to enhance the background effect. People are encouraged to focus on the "present moment", the here and now, and if possible, to tune out any thoughts and ideas that may be racing around through their mind.
They are taken to a "special place" in their imagination (e.g., a secluded tropical beach, a babbling brook at the base of a mountain, a cascading waterfall, or a meadow filled with sweet country air, etc.). They are secluded, safe and free of interruptions. Listeners are encouraged to focus on all the vivid details of the scenery; sights, sounds, and smells, and the "overall feeling" of being in their peaceful, "special place".
The "story" invites listeners to confront and work through any feelings of fear, uncertainties or challenges that they may be dealing with and provides them with an opportunity to "let it go". The response often brings about a state of "enlightenment" which in turn leads to relaxation, serenity and peace.
Often a "mental connection" with support persons such as dear friends, loved ones or mentors is experienced. They may be from their present or their past. Often, an animal, lovable pet or even warm, loving spiritual presence is chosen to be their source of strength and wisdom.
The overall feeling of the imagery session centers on inner strength, courage, and resilience. The message conveys the importance of learning from the past, embracing the lessons learned and moving forward in life, emotionally and physically.
Guided Imagery has a dramatic impact on slowing down a racing, busy mind and keeping thoughts in focus when faced with stressful and difficult times. Through the story that contains a soothing musical background, people are "gently guided" to an imaginary place in the mind where they feel safe, peaceful and protected.
Research has shown that guided imagery may:
Reduce stress and anxiety
Decrease side effects
Decrease blood pressure
Decrease blood glucose levels (Diabetes)
Decrease allergy and respiratory symptoms
Decrease the severity of headaches
Decrease hospital costs
Enhance bone and wound healing
Enhance self confidence
Assist in losses (job, divorces, death)
Enhance quality of life
Guided imagery is a simple, low cost tool that has been demonstrated to increase dignity, self-esteem, independence, and control that is often lost when faced with emotional trauma or illness.