The use of inner visions to help the healing process is hardly a new concept. Tibetan Buddhists have been using images in this way since the 13th century or earlier. The Buddhist approach typically involves meditating on a sacred image. Native healers (shamans) in cultures throughout the world have used a similar approach, perhaps since the beginning of human time. But only recently has imagery been used by Western doctors and healthcare providers.
A growing body of research strongly suggests that imagery can help people with a wide range of physical illnesses. Doctors who use this technique report that some people recover from their illnesses after using imagery and others have been helped by imagery to lead more rewarding lives in spite of their condition. And now there are some fairly sophisticated studies pointing the way to understanding just how imagery exerts its effects.
How Imagery Works
The use of therapeutic imagery usually involves a 20- to 25-minute session that begins with a relaxation exercise to help focus your attention and "center" your mind. If this doesn't get rid of distractions, you can also start by using hypnosis.
During a typical session of imagery, you may focus on an image that's been suggested to you, designed to help you control a particular symptom (active imagery) or you may allow your mind to conjure up images that give you insight into a particular problem (receptive imagery). Depending on your needs, imagery can be explored on your own, with the help of a book, using an audiotape, or by working with a therapist.
Uses of Imagery
Imagery can be helpful for a wide variety of ailments - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. It is a powerful healing tool for chronic symptoms, such as pain. It can enhance the immune system and accelerate physical healing. It can also promote relaxation and provide insight into emotional, mental and spiritual concerns.
Depending on how severe your problem is, you may want to try using imagery on your own or with professional help. Since imagery may change the body's requirements for medications, it may be best for you to use it under the guidance of your physician if you have a medication-dependent condition.
In any case, if you plan to begin an imagery program, it's best to set relatively small goals at first, perhaps aiming simply to learn to relax. Most people can experience relaxation with imagery in a very short time, even during the first session. Once you've mastered that, you can go on to try more complex forms of imagery.
For chronic symptoms, such as pain, you may want to begin by practicing 15 to 20 minutes, twice a day for three weeks. This is usually enough to see if the imagery is helpful. For receptive imagery, it often takes two or three session with an experienced therapist or instructor to get initial results. It may take longer if you are working on your own or with self-help tapes.
If you use active imagery, keep a daily journal in which you estimate your symptoms' severity day to day. Over several weeks, this will help you determine whether the imagery is having an effect. Similarly, if you are using receptive imagery, it can be helpful to keep a journal of your experiences with imagery, as well as your dreams and emotional reactions.
Benefits of Imagery
There are four major qualities of imagery that make it a particularly valuable approach to mind-body medicine and healing:
* Physical Changes
Imagery has great potential to affect your body directly. There is some evidence that imagery can have positive effects on the immune system, although the explanation for these findings remains unclear.
Researchers have generally looked at the physical effects of imagery combined with other relaxation and stress management techniques. The studies do suggest that it can contribute to a wide range of changes in function such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing patterns, brain wave rhythms, blood flow, digestion, sexual arousal, and the release of various hormones and neurotransmitters.
* Insight into Problems or Issues
Imagery can also help us to see the connections between stressful circumstances and physical symptoms, where those connections exist. It does this by helping you see the big picture.
When you look at the world through logic, as most people usually do, you attempt to find the sequences that lead from one piece to the next. Logical thinking is similar to watching a train round the bend: You see one car at a time, and maybe just a little bit of the car that went before it.
Imagery gives you the broad view, as if you were in a small plane flying hundreds of feet above the track, high enough to see the entire train and several miles of track, as well as the town it came from and the city it's going to, the fields through which the train runs, and the mountain range in the distance. You can grasp the whole picture and see how everything relates to the rest. In much the same way, imagery can help you see connections between physical symptoms and emotional or stressful situations.
* Increased Emotional Awareness
The third significant aspect of imagery is its close relationship to the emotions. You can think of your emotions as the means by which thoughts create changes in the body. Fear makes our hearts pound, grief makes us shed tears, and joy leads to laughter.
The natural ways of demonstrating emotions, especially negative ones, such as anger and sadness are often socially unacceptable and are suppressed. People may then find unhealthful outlets for such emotions, such as physical symptoms or behaviors (smoking, drinking, workaholism, and so on) that lead to health problems. Imagery is one of the quickest and most direct ways to become aware of one's emotional state and its potential effect on health.
* Enhanced Healing
Although there is little careful, well-controlled research on the medical benefits of imagery, reports suggest that the technique may help treat a wide range of conditions, including chronic pain, allergies, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, auto immune diseases, cold and flu symptoms, and stress-related digestive and urinary complaints. Imagery may also help speed healing after an injury, such as a sprain, strain, or broken bone.
Many of these benefits stem directly from the relaxing effects of imagery. In fact, the most common, most useful, and easiest application of imagery in health care is its use in relaxation and stress reduction. Many people find guided imagery the simplest, most natural way to relax.
The Role of Imagery in Prevention
At its most basic level, imagery can be used as a relaxation tool. Regular relaxation practices have been shown to have a beneficial effect on blood pressure, heart rate, breathing patterns, digestion and the secretion of beneficial neurotransmitters and hormones.
People with cancer or any other illness should not rely on imagery as their sole means of treatment when other, proven methods are available. Still, imagery can be a powerful aid in increasing the effectiveness of medical treatments or helping people to endure them. Combined with relaxation techniques, imagery has helped people to tolerate procedures such as magnetic resonance imaging examinations, bone marrow biopsies, and cancer chemotherapy and radiation. It can also help people prepare for surgery and recover from it.
Until more careful research is done, we don't really know imagery's full potential or limitations as a healing tool. Some people seem to respond to it remarkably well, while others don't. Many factors, from your physical condition to your inner resolve, may affect the treatment's success. Experimenting with imagery, however, is easy, safe, and inexpensive. All it takes is the time and willingness to unlock the power of your imagination.
- The Academy for Guided Imagery, Mill Valley, CA, (800)726-2070.
- The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto, CA, (650)493-4430.
- Healing Yourself: A Step-by-Step Program for Better Health Through Imagery by Martin Rossman, The Academy for Guided Imagery (1997, 2nd ed.).
- Rituals of Healing: Using Imagery for Health and Wellness by Jeanne Archterberg et al, Bantam (1994).
- Staying Well with Guided Imagery by Bellaruth Naparstek, Warner 1995).