Guided imagery harnesses our brain's natural tendency to create vivid mental representations of our beliefs, desires, experiences and goals. It's also a simple, inexpensive, and powerful tool for soothing symptoms and creating positive change.
There is plenty of research on imagery’s effectiveness for a variety of issues. With regard to our bodies, this includes (but is not limited to) reducing the severity of hot flashes, postoperative pain and pain medication use; alleviating nausea; increasing mobility and decreasing pain in osteoarthritis, improving symptoms of asthma, and more. Imagery can also help alleviate stress and anxiety, improve self-confidence, help us visualize success, and enhance our ability to perform. Well-known athletes, including Tiger Woods, have been frank about their use of imagery to improve their games, and with good reason.
Like hypnosis, imagery fosters a state of inner absorption, or gently focused attention. When you are absorbed in a good book, your mind creates images about the scenery, the characters, and what they are doing. Imagery is multisensory, and thus, you may “smell” or “taste” the bread that the grandmother character is baking, or “see” her calico-print apron or large gray ringlets, “hear” her soft, slightly accented voice, or “feel” the intense heat in the kitchen on a sweltering summer day. Depending on how engrossed we are, these experiences can seem quite real.
The images we create about our bodies, our physical senses, our potential, or our challenges can shape our reality. We know from a large body of research that our brains respond to engaging in vivid imagery almost as if we are having the “real” experience. It’s not the same, but it’s not entirely different, either. So, when we imagine something visually, our visual cortex is active, just as our auditory cortex is engaged when we imagine a hearing song or a conversation, and so forth.
The power of imagery can be either helpful or a hindrance with regard to motivation, self-esteem, or reaching goals, however. For example, a student who is anxious about an upcoming music recital can inadvertently reinforce fears of stumbling during his performance, just as someone who has a weight loss goal can have a difficult time releasing the idea of herself as overweight, and an anxious athlete can tense up before an important dive or run. Often, our emotions and behaviors follow our beliefs, so it’s vital to be aware of the images you hold of yourself and shift these if necessary.
Here are some tips to create your own effective imagery:
1. Decide on the end goal first.
2. With the larger goal in mind, write down each step needed to reach it. Be realistic and descriptive. For example, if the goal is to lose 50 lbs, and losing 2 lbs per week is realistic, envision the journey taking place over six months, give or take. Include details such as the size and composition of meals, the types of exercise in which you will engage, and so forth.
3. Use multi-sensory imagery (seeing, hearing, sensing, smelling, tasting, as well as the feeling of moving). See yourself successfully presenting at a meeting, or playing a terrific game of golf. Feel your body getting lighter and allow yourself to feel pride, joy, a sense of accomplishment as you lose those unwanted pounds. Hear yourself playing that piano concerto beautifully.
4. Focus on both the observable changes (e.g., becoming slimmer, or completing a longer run) and the inner ones (e.g., being confident, feeling more satisfied with healthier food, and smaller portions, noticing what it is like to be a person who is in a healthy body).
5. As you become aware of barriers to your goal, such as fear of losing a former coping tool (e.g., overeating), worries that others will be threatened by your success, or the idea of yourself as unable to do what you really want to do, concretize these and imagine leaving them behind. I often suggest patients envision allowing ways of coping that no longer serve them to flow out easily with the breath, and imagine them as dried leaves or other debris that can blow safely off into the distance. Another helpful image is to imagine shedding an old, out-of-style outfit for something that suits you better.
6. Use affirming, success-oriented language that is grounded in the present moment rather than in the future. So “I am happy, and enjoy exercise and nutritious foods,” rather than “I will be happy….”
7. Record yourself delivering the imagery. Your own voice lovingly encouraging you can be an extremely potent tool for creating change.
Guided imagery—whether directed by a therapist, delivered by way of an audio download, or via a self-created recording—can help us develop more positive images to sooth our bodies, calm our minds, achieve important goals, and feel better overall.
Dr. Traci Stein is a certified clinical hypnotherapist and the creator of guided self-hypnosis audio programs on healthy self-esteem; enhancing self-esteem while fostering deep, restorative sleep; and overcoming procrastination. For more information, follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/DrTStein), on Twitter (@DrTraciStein) or visit her blog (DrTraciStein.wordpress.com).