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Imagine a Life Without Pain

Visualization can help ease stress and manage chronic pain

There are mornings when I lay in bed long after the alarm rings simply because I know it’s going to hurt to move. For those of you, who, like me, have rheumatoid arthritis or any chronic pain, you know what I’m talking about. There are times when you are afraid to move or reach or bend or walk for fear of setting off the sirens of pain that will pulsate through the body.

Mornings are like this for me. After hours of rest, my joints creak, and rip, and grind, and throb, when I start the process of climbing, lurching, wobbling out of bed. If I’m not mentally up to the physical challenge of starting my day, it can be even more excruciating.

So, before I move into my day, while I’m gearing to get up, I also do a self-guided visualization. Not only does this quick process ease my pain, it helps me shift my focus and attention to other meaningful and more positive aspects of my day.

What is visualization

Visualization, often called guided imagery, or creative visualization, is a powerful, natural way to deal with chronic pain. It involves imagining, in great detail, an ideal situation while experiencing the emotions that would emerge from that best-case-scenario.

So, if you’re feeling locked up in pain, you would imagine a vibrant, healthy, comfortable body and allow yourself to feel what that would be like. Stressed out about work? You could visualize your day flowing with ease.

This imagined scenario creates a real physiological response that can ease the stress that exacerbates pain and actually change the physical manifestation of it.

The process is powerful enough that more than 3,000 hospitals nationwide use some form of imagery or visualization to treat patients. It’s effective in helping people cope with cancer symptoms and the side effects of chemotherapy; it’s useful in managing chronic pain; and visualization even helps people recover from surgery faster.

According to one study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, drop significantly in people who participate in a guided imagery session. Other research has shown that when stressful, anxiety-producing experiences are replaced with healthier, happier, positive mental images people relax significantly and that helps folks feel better, especially since stress can often cause pain to flair.

Those patients who were taught to visualize their pain in a different, more positive way were better able to manage their discomfort, according to an article in the journal Pain Management Nursing.

Three keys to visualization

Many therapists are trained in guided visualization and plenty of CDs and MP3’s are available to lead you through a session. I do it on my own, just about every morning and sometimes at other times during the day when pain becomes a factor or I need a dose of positive energy. Here is how to get started.

Relax. Stay alert, but get as comfortable as you can. I sometimes do this while lying in bed or sitting upright with feet flat on the floor. Take five deep, slow breaths, or become mindful of your heartbeat. Denis Waitley, an expert in visualization and human behavior, also suggests listening to Baroque music from Bach and Vivaldi as a way to quiet the mind and open it to imagery. Settle your thoughts and begin to imagine.

Imagine your ideal circumstance and the emotions that come with it. Once relaxed and quieted, imagine a comfortable body, free from pain. You can also envision a beautiful location, or your perfect day. Don’t worry if the images aren’t perfect, go for the sensation. Some people “visualize” through auditory cues or physical sensations. That’s fine too.

Imagery doesn’t have to be a picture per se but it does have to invoke your emotions. The power of visualization lies in the feelings you create.

Deal with the details. Infuse your image or sensation with specific details. See your body moving easily, free from pain. Imagine yourself free of stress and filled with vitality. Imagine the pain dissipating into a vaporous cloud moving out and away and leaving only comfort and ease.

Be sure to infuse your visualization with the smells, textures, noises, emotions, and other specific details that make it feel plausible.

A visualization exercise can take an hour or a few minutes. It can be done in the shower, or during a meditation, once or several times a day. Use it as needed, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun. Fire up your imagination. Play with your positive story line. Once you begin the practice, you can expand your visualizations to include any possibility.

See yourself successfully navigating through your work day, or making more money or having a smooth doctor’s appointment or creating a loving relationship. Imagine yourself excelling or overcoming a fear.

Whatever story line you can come up with, imaging the experience in your mind first will have a powerful influence on your real-world experience.