What if your mind's eye could lead you to a place so peaceful that the experience can ease your pain or expedite your recovery from surgery? It's not that complicated. In fact, there are many studies that show that guided imaging can be good in many parts of your life.
"Guided imaging", a type of mind-body therapy that uses visible images to communicate with the body's home systems, makes its way into traditional medical settings.
"People now have a very serious look at it," said David E. Bresler, co-founder of the Guided Imagery Academy, in Malibu, California, and author of Free Yourself From Pain. "There is a handful of hospitals across the country and around the world that are starting to implement these programs," he said.
Studies in guided imagery
In a study, researchers at Harvard Medical School found that over 30% of US adults have used some form of hospital medicine, a category that includes images, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Bresler, a traditionally trained Ph.D. neuroscientist, was initially interesting with alternative methods of pain relief in the early 1970s, as founder and manager of the University of California, Los Angeles, Pain Control Unit.
Patients often used live pictures to describe their pain. He felt like ice in one person, ants of fire in another. A particular patient, a psychiatrist with a painful rectal tumor, suffered from back pain that he said "he felt like a dog chewing on my spine."
Breser knew when the patients used their imagination to go to a quiet place, helped him relax, so he guided the upset psychiatrist through a relaxation exercise. When the pain of the man exploded, Bresler instructed him to speak to the dog. Would he leave his spine? Then, there was an amazing thing – when the dog began to talk, the pain of man subsided.
Today, guided imaging has many applications. Athletic psychologists use it to enhance the physical performance of athletes. Cancer centers often use it to relieve pain and sickness of patients.
In a 2004 study in Pain, researchers at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center found that children who used cartridges with guided imaging before and after routine surgery had significantly less pain and anxiety than a control group.
More recently, researchers have looked at how children used these films, which suggests that they "go" to a park, at least in their minds. Many, however, put their own spin on the proposed image, allowing them to escape to places like the pool, lake or entertainment park.
Bresler said imaging is the language of the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that regulates many involuntary body functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure and digestion. "So when you work with pictures, it's really a set of instructions to the system," he said.
How to Start Using Guided Pictures
Victoria Menzies, a researcher and professor at the University of Florida in Miami, said the first step for a patient in any guided illustration session is to develop a relationship with the driver who asks you to close your eyes and relax.
Once the patient is in a relaxed state, the driver will either provide an image or ask the person to come with his own, somewhere where he would feel calm and safe or happy – the mountains, the beach, their home, anything else .
Commitment of the senses is the next step, he explained. The driver can ask you where you are and what you see, hear, smell, feel and taste.
Menzies led an invasive imaging led by 10 weeks for a small group of patients with fibromyalgia, a condition that included chronic pain and fatigue. In the study, published in January 2006 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a group of patients took the usual care and used a set of speakers with guided imaging.
The other group received only the usual care. Compared to controls, patients who participated in guided imaging were better able to perform day-to-day activities and had a greater sense of being able to manage their pain and other symptoms, according to the study.
In addition, Menzies found: "Pain did not change, but the pain-fighting capacity improved."
Bresler finds it shocking that medical colleagues will get to their own body and will remove the instruments before allowing a patient to go through an imaging exercise.
"It takes only a few steps to do these things and actually control the wisdom from within, because there is enormous wisdom produced if we only hear it," he said.