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What To Know About Guided Imagery

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on August 10, 2022

Guided imagery or guided imagery visualization involves using your imagination to help put your body in a calmer state. One of the most basic ways is to close your eyes and imagine being in a place that is relaxing to you. You use all of your senses to create imagery in your head to help relieve certain mental or physical problems. There are many benefits to guided imagery, including helping with stress and pain. 

What Is Guided Imagery?

Guided imagery is a relaxation technique where you use your imagination to help lower stress, pain, or other negative feelings. The concept is simple: imagine a place that is peaceful and relaxing to you. It can be a place you have been to or one created purely from your imagination. Some common places that people imagine include a quiet beach or a shady forest spot. You can also imagine yourself participating in a calming activity that you enjoy. The main goal is to build a sense of calm to ease tension and lift your mood.

Guided imagery is a mind-body technique, which means it alters your physical condition through the power of your mind. It is closely related to hypnosis, psychotherapy, and biofeedback. Guided imagery, along with these practices, has been used throughout history to change behaviors, perspectives, and physiology. 

How Does Guided Imagery Work?

Guided imagery works by directing your thoughts toward a special place and creating images in your mind to calm your sympathetic nervous system. You want to use your senses in creating the imagery as much as possible. These senses include sight, sound, smell, taste, and any other sensations. The more specific the imagery is, the more helpful it will be. The goal is to solidly visualize a place that “removes” you from your current stressful circumstance and places you in a controlled situation that calms you. 

Guided imagery can be done alone, with a group, or under the guidance of a practitioner. If you’re new to this practice, it’s recommended that you follow a guide in the form of a practitioner or a script. A typical session may start with you being guided through relaxation exercises, followed by exploring visual images offered through cues. Initially, a positive image may be created for you if you’re having trouble visualizing a place. If working with a practitioner, the practitioner may collaborate with you to co-create an image. Ultimately, guided imagery should be controlled by the person experiencing it. This gives them a sense of mastery and control, which can further support their positive feelings and ability to self-direct the changes they want.

Examples of guided imagery you can visualize include being at the beach, relaxing in a forest, on a mountainside, at a pool, or in a field of flowers. You can also visualize yourself doing something you love, like participating in a favorite sports activity or cooking. Whatever you choose to visualize, really immerse yourself in the image so you feel like you’re physically there. Guided imagery can be used as a regular relaxation exercise or in times of stress. 

Benefits of Guided Imagery

The main benefit of guided imagery is reducing physical and emotional stress. By mentally removing yourself from a stressful situation, you remove the stressors causing negative physiological reactions. Various studies have shown that stress can lead to high blood pressure, exhaustion, and depression. In the long run, these symptoms can take a toll on your body. 

Guided imagery can also provide relief for people who have chronic health conditions. Several studies have shown that guided imagery visualization leads to significant pain reduction and improved mobility for people who have arthritis and other joint diseases. As a result, these patients were able to reduce their use of pain medications.

Guided imagery helps your mind and body relax. When you calm your sympathetic nervous system, you reduce your body’s production of stress hormones. Some stress can help you be productive, but too much over an extended period can cause inflammation in your body. Guided imagery can help you manage your stress better, which in turn improves your overall health.

Other benefits of guided imagery include:

  • Improved sleep
  • Reduced feelings of stress
  • Decrease in pain
  • Reduced depression and anxiety
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Better management of anxiety and depression
  • Better sense of control and well-being

Guided imagery helps you better control your breathing, which calms your heart rate. Major physiological control systems of your body, like your metabolism and digestive system, also benefit from imagery.

Tips for Doing Guided Imagery

Guided imagery visualization is a simple concept but requires practice to become better at it. The purpose of guided imagery is to help you relax and reduce general stress, so give yourself time to practice in a setting that gives you the highest chance for success. Here are some tips for doing guided imagery exercises:

  • Find a quiet place. Practice guided imagery in a spot with minimal distractions and sounds. It may be helpful to turn off your phone and other distractions.
  • Get into a comfortable position. Sit or lie down. You can use a comfy couch or simply the floor. You may choose to close your eyes or darken your room.
  • Focus on your breathing. Use long, deep breaths to help you relax. This maximizes airflow and can have a calming effect. 
  • Follow a guide. It may be difficult to visualize an image or control your thoughts when you first begin. It helps to follow along to instructions given by a practitioner or as a script. Sound machines and music can also help. 
  • Practice. The more you practice guided imagery, the easier it will become. Set aside a few minutes every day to help you become more familiar with the practice. 

It may be helpful to ask yourself the following questions to take your mind to another place:

  • What do you see when you are there? 
  • What can you hear when you are there?
  • What can you feel with your hands and feet?
  • Can you taste something? Is it salty, bitter, sour, or sweet?
  • What do you smell?

You should stop guided imagery if you start having uncomfortable feelings or thoughts. Being able to control your visualization and your reactions to it takes patience and practice.

When Should You Try Guided Imagery?

Guided imagery is generally used for stress reduction, so anyone who wants to better manage their stress can try it. The technique can also help treat anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and grief. 

In addition to emotional and behavioral issues, guided imagery can also help with pain management. Studies have shown that patients with cancer, arthritis, and joint pain report a reduction in pain and use of medication as a result of practicing guided imagery.

Guided imagery can also be used to target specific outcomes. Some athletes practice guided imagery to enhance their performance. People who are trying to stop tobacco use may also use guided imagery to help. 

Guided imagery is a relatively safe and simple technique that nearly everyone can use. You may choose to work with a trained professional individually or in a group, especially when you’re first trying it. Professionals can also teach you how to continue practicing guided imagery on your own. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Beaumont: “Benefits of Guided Imagery for Pain Management.”

Center for Integrated Healthcare: “Visualization/Guided Imagery.”

Cleveland Clinic healthessentials: “How Guided Imagery Helps You Relax.”

GoodTherapy: “Guided Therapeutic Imagery.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Imagery.”

UNC Health Care: “Guided Imagery.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Guided Imagery.”

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