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.
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.")
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)
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.