Come with me. I want to take you to the top of a mountain where the evergreen trees are tall and narrow and there is still a crunchy layer of thin, but loosely packed snow. The sun is shining overhead and you breathe deeply. The air is crisp and cool and you smell damp wood and pine needles. You can see little buds beginning to grow with their tight, snug layers and mysterious contents. Your shadow stretches out as a dark form in front of you and you can feel the muscles in your legs alive but resting after the climb up rocks and over logs. Below you is the water, which has just come into sight after cresting the slope and it is a deep royal blue. You feel the muscles in your face relax. They are melting like snow on an old trunk. The tension dissolves out of your neck and your shoulders as you breathe out and let the tightness disappear with the wind that just blew your hair forward. You breathe in the fresh air that is full of oxygen and nutrients and with each breath you are filled with the earth’s restorative strength.
This dialogue is what therapists call guided imagery and it is founded on the belief that the mind is an essential component of healing. Guided imagery has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks. Both Aristotle and Hippocrates healed their patients with different forms of imagery. However, it was not until the emerging field of biofeedback in the 1960s that psychologists were able to document the effects of imagery on the body. Through biofeedback, scientists could observe a patient’s ability to slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, or open lungs riddled with asthma. Since that time, there has been a great deal of research into mind-body connections. Apparently, stimulating the brain with an image can have a direct effect on the endocrine, nervous and immune systems. If you picture yourself at the top of a mountain breathing in fresh, crisp air, your muscles will relax and you will feel the cool air and the sunshine on your skin. Similarly, if you imagine yourself recovering effortlessly and speedily from an appendix surgery, you are more likely to heal quickly and suffer less pain. Gentle, uplifting images can lower your blood pressure and slow down your pulse. They can trigger the release of endorphins that stimulate your body’s restorative systems and make you feel good.
A growing area of guided imagery is related to stress management. Guided imagery is one of the major types of relaxation techniques according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. You can ease your body systems from the stressful state of fight-or-flight to one of serenity and peacefulness.
There are recordings of guided imagery available online or in the form of CDs. As you play a recording, a therapist will lead you to an imaginary place where you will be given prompts and asked to focus on certain images. It is essentially a guided form of meditation, so you will want to listen to the recording in a place and at a time when you will not be disturbed.
Guided imagery is an effective way to use the power of your mind to step away from your life situation; to see problems from a fresh and renewed perspective; and to develop skills to control unwanted thoughts or thinking.