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ind Body Health

Rx Imagery: How to Use Your Imagination to Improve Your Health

© David S. Sobel MD

The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Mind Body Health by David S. Sobel MD. View all columns in series
This article was adapted from The Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook by David S. Sobel and Robert Ornstein. Publisher: DRx, Los Altos, CA, 1996. May not be reproduced without written permission.

The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.
- William James (1842-1910)
You may assume that "imagination" means "not real." But the thoughts, words, and images that flow from your imagination can have very real physiological consequences for your body. Your brain often cannot distinguish whether you are imagining something or actually experiencing it. (See "The Juicy Orange.")

Perhaps you've had a racing heartbeat, rapid breathing, or tension in your neck muscles while watching a movie thriller. These sensations were all produced by images and sounds on a film. During a dream, maybe your body responded with fear, joy, anger, or sadness - all triggered by your imagination. If you close your eyes and vividly imagine yourself by a still, quiet pool or relaxing on a warm beach, your body responds to some degree as though you are actually there.

Your imagination can be a very powerful resource in relieving stress, pain, and other unwanted symptoms.

You can learn to use the power of your imagination to produce calming, energizing, or healing responses in your body. You can use imagery and hypnosis to reduce anxiety, fear, and panic; decrease chronic muscle tension; decrease pain and need for pain medications; improve comfort during medical, surgical, and dental procedures; reduce the length of labor and discomfort of childbirth; control bleeding; speed healing and recovery from surgery, injury, or skin conditions such as warts and psoriasis; ease sleep problems; improve management of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma, lung, and heart disease; boost your immune function; increase sense of control and mastery; change bad habits and maintain healthy ones.

Practicing Imagery and Visualization
With guided imagery, you deliberately focus your mind on a particular image. While imagery most often uses your sense of sight with visual images, you can also include the rich experiences of your mind's other senses. Adding smells, tastes, sounds, and other sensations makes the guided imagery experience more vivid and powerful.

Some people are very visual, and easily see images with their mind's eye. But if your images aren't as vivid as a really great movie, don't worry. It's normal for imagery to vary in intensity. The important thing is to focus on as much detail as possible, and strengthen the images by using all your senses. Adding real background music can also increase the impact of guided imagery.

Remember, with guided imagery, you are always completely in control. You're the movie director. You can project whatever thought or feeling you want onto your mental screen. If you don't like a particular image, thought or feeling you can redirect your mind to something more comfortable. Or you can use other images to get rid of unpleasant thoughts (you might put them on a raft and watch them float away on a river, sweep them away with a large broom, or erase them with a giant eraser). Or you can open your eyes and stop the exercise.

Included here are basic scripts for several imagery exercises. Scores of other scripts and tapes are available. You may want to tape record yourself (or someone else) reading the script so that you can concentrate fully on the imagery. Feel free to change, modify, and personalize the script any way you please. Make it your own.

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About The Author
David S. Sobel, M.D., M.P.H., is a practicing physician in adult medicine and Medical Director of Patient Education and Health Promotion for Kaiser Permanente Northern California. He is physician lead for the national initiative in Self-Care and Shared Decision-Making for Kaiser Permanente. He is coauthor of Living a Healthy Life with Chronic Conditions, The Healing Brain,......more
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