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Rx Imagery: How to Use Your Imagination to Improve Your Health

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)

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.

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.

Skill, Not Magic

To practice these imagery exercises you will need 10 to 30 minutes of quiet, undisturbed time. You may need to put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign and turn off the telephone. Wear loose, comfortable clothing. Sit in a comfortable chair or lie on a pad or carpeted floor with a pillow under your head. Do whatever you can to enhance your comfort. Dim the lights. Put on soft music if you like. You may wish to use a guided imagery audiotape (see below).

Don’t expect miracles. Some relief may come immediately, but often these skills take time to acquire. You may need several weeks of practice before you really start to notice benefits. Practice the techniques once or twice a day, or if that’s not possible, at least three to four times a week.

Watch Out

Imagery techniques are generally very safe. However, if you have symptoms such as pain, diarrhea, dizziness, nervousness, or depression, make sure you first have an appropriate medical evaluation. These imagery techniques may also change your need for certain medications, so be sure to check with your doctor. Don’t practice imagery or self-hypnosis while in a car or in any situation where your safety requires full alertness and quick responses. If you experience very distressing sensations or feelings while practicing these techniques, stop and get professional help.

The Juicy Orange

You are standing in your kitchen. Imagine the time of day, the color of the countertops, the appliances, the cupboards. You hear the hum of the refrigerator. You notice a large, plump, juicy orange lying on the cutting board. You pick it up and feel its weight. You feel the texture of its dimpled, glossy skin. With a sharp knife, you carefully cut a large slice.

As you cut into the orange you notice the rich, liquid, fragrant juice trickle onto the counter top. You see the bright whiteness of the pulp in contrast with the orange flesh. You see the small drops of orange juice forming on the cut surface. Now imagine lifting this dripping slice of orange to your mouth, and smelling its sweet, fresh scent. Your mouth begins to water as you slowly bite into the orange. It releases a flood of sweet tangy juice into your mouth.

This juicy orange imagery exercise causes most people to salivate. Just the words and multi-sensory images are enough to trigger a physiological response.

In this case it’s the flow of saliva. You can learn to use the power of your imagination to control other body functions.

Rx Create Your Special Place

The purpose of this guided imagery exercise is to help you imagine a special place where you feel safe, comfortable, and relaxed. This place can be anywhere.

It might be somewhere you have been, or a place you know well. It could be a place you create from scratch, or by taking bits and pieces from places you know. You may choose to put a dwelling in your landscape: a cabin, a castle, or a cave. Here’s what to do:

  • Begin by closing your eyes (or if you prefer, keep your eyes open). Take several slow, deep breaths, exhaling completely after each.
  • Now see if you can imagine a place where you feel completely comfortable and peaceful. It might be real or imaginary, one from your past, or someplace you’ve always wanted to go (it doesn’t really matter, just so long as this place feels very safe and peaceful to you).
  • Allow that special place to take shape slowly (there’s no rush).
  • As your place begins to take shape, look around. Look to your left, to your right, and all around you. What do you see?
  • Enjoy the scenery: the colors, the textures, the shapes.
  • Listen to the sounds of your special place – perhaps waves gently lapping at the shore, the call of a distant bird, the sound of the wind in the trees.
  • Now just listen to the sounds of this wonderful place – a place that is so comfortable and peaceful to you.
  • Perhaps you feel a breeze touch your face, or warm sun gently soothing your skin.
  • You may feel the crunch of gravel or soft sand beneath your feet, or the comforting support of a favorite chair.
  • Now touch or pick up some favorite object from your special place. Allow your fingertips to gently explore its surface (Is it smooth or rough? Wet or dry? Warm or cold?).
  • Now take in a deep breath through your nose, and notice all the rich fragrances around you. Perhaps your favorite flower is in bloom. Or you may smell the pungent scent of a pine forest, or the tangy salt sea air, or the aroma of your favorite food.
  • Relax and enjoy the peace, comfort and safety of your special place.
  • This is your place, and nothing can harm you here. Relax, feeling thankful and happy to be here, in your special place, at this moment.
  • Begin to sense that something wonderful is about to happen. Feel the tingling sensation of expecting something good.
  • Know the sense of certainty. Everything is right, just as it should be.
  • Now notice a soft glow of golden light from above. It begins to bathe your body.
    A tingling, shimmering, vibrant energy surrounds you, energizes you, soothes you, heals you.
  • You are washed in bright goodness, and draw everything you need to you, as a powerful magnet. Good wishes and kind thoughts come. This goodness and healing energy seeps into your body, infusing you with a generous, boundless energy and sense of well-being.
  • Feel it move through the layers of your body, deeper and deeper into each and every organ, down to the bone.
  • Feel it in each and every cell, dissolving any blockages, correcting any imbalances. Enjoy this free-flowing, healthy energy sweeping through your body. Now you are relaxing; healing.
  • Your body remembers how to be well, and savors this feeling of well-being. You feel peaceful and easy in your special place – a healing place – one that is always here. You know it’s a place you can visit anytime, and feel this healing energy and peace.
    When you are ready to return, take a deep breath and exhale fully. Open your eyes and spend a few moments savoring this relaxed, healthy, comfortable feeling.
  • You may want to explore different special places each time you do this exercise, or one special place may emerge as your favorite. Remember, you can visit this place any time you want to, in your mind.

Script adapted from Belleruth Naparstek

Rx Create Your Inner Advisor

You can use this type of imagery to explore the meaning of your symptoms or illness, and what you can do to improve your health. This imagery is a means of two-way communication between your mind and your body.

Begin with a general imagery exercise such as Creating a Special Place. Once you have entered your special place, invite an inner advisor to come and visit you.

Use all your senses to watch for your advisor, as the advisor may take any shape or form. Or you may have several inner advisors. They may be a person, a voice, an object, or a symbol. If you are not comfortable with what emerges, send him/her/it away, and invite another advisor.

Once you are comfortable with your advisor, ask questions. Feel free to ask anything, such as:

  • Are you my inner advisor?
  • How can I relax?
  • What is causing my tension? Pain? Symptom?
  • What do I need to do to feel better?
  • Who can help me?

Then wait for the answers. Be patient. They may come in any form: a picture, image, sound, word, phrase, feeling. They can come at any time. Think about what they mean to you.

Sometimes you may be surprised at the directness and clarity of an answer. In response to “What is causing my anger” one person heard back, “You need to learn to say no.” If the meaning or usefulness is not clear to you right away, don’t worry. It may become clearer in the days or weeks ahead.

You can use a similar technique to have an inner dialogue with a symptom you are having. For example, if you are in pain, give it a color, shape or form. Then ask your pain questions:

  • Why are you here?
  • What can I learn from you?
  • When will you go away?
  • How can we live more peaceably together?
  • How can I get better?

Wait for responses. This dialogue can be done with any symptom or problem.

You have untapped knowledge, insight, and wisdom which is often drowned out by the incessant chatter of a busy mind. You can use imagery techniques to give voice to your inner wisdom, and consult your own inner advisor. There is nothing mysterious or magical about it. Simply by quieting down and bringing your mind into a focused and receptive state, valuable insights can emerge. These include suggestions on how to improve your health and well-being.

Adapted from Martin Rossman, MD and the Academy for Guided Imagery

Rx Imagine Yourself Well

You have the ability to create special imagery to alleviate specific symptoms or illnesses. Use any image that is strong and vivid for you (this often involves using all your senses to create the image), and one that is meaningful to you.

The image does not have to be physiologically accurate for it to work. Just use your imagination and trust yourself. Here are examples of images that some people have found useful. Use any of these images, or make up your own.

Remember, the best ones are vivid and have meaning to you.

For Tension and Stress

  • A tight, twisted rope slowly untwists
    Wax softens and melts
    Tension swirls out of your body and down the drain

For Healing of Cuts and Injuries

  • Plaster covers over a crack in a wall
  • Cells and fibers stick together with superglue
  • A shoe is laced up tight
  • Jigsaw puzzle pieces come together

For Arteries and Heart Disease

  • A miniature Roto Rooter truck speeds through your arteries and cleans out the clogged pipes
  • Water flows freely through a wide, open river
  • A crew in a small boat all row together, easily and efficiently pulling the slender boat across the smooth water surface

For Asthma and Lung Disease

  • The tiny elastic rubber bands that constrict your airways pop open
  • A vacuum cleaner gently sucks the mucus from your airways
  • Waves calmly rise and fall on the ocean surface

For Diabetes

  • Small insulin keys unlock doors to hungry cells, and allow nourishing blood sugar in
  • An alarm goes off and a sleeping pancreas gland awakens to the smell of freshly brewed coffee

For Cancer

  • A shark gobbles up the cancer cells
  • Tumors shrivel up like raisins in the hot sun, and then evaporate completely into the air
  • The faucet that controls the blood supply to the tumor is turned off, and the cancer cells starve
  • Radiation or chemotherapy enter your body like healing rays of light; they destroy cancer cells

For Infections

  • White blood cells with flashing red sirens arrest and imprison harmful germs
  • An army equipped with powerful anti-biotic missiles attacks enemy germs
  • A hot flame chases germs out of your entire body

For a Weak Immune System (Immune deficiency disorders: HIV, AIDS, and others)

  • Sluggish, sleepy white blood cells awaken, put on protective armor, and enter the fight against the virus
  • White blood cells rapidly multiply like millions of seeds bursting from a single, ripe seed pod

For an Overactive Immune System (Allergies, asthma, arthritis, etc.)

  • Hyperalert immune cells in the fire station are reassured that the allergens have triggered a false alarm, and they can go back to playing their game of poker
  • The civil war ends with the warring sides agreeing not to attack their fellow citizens

For Pain

  • All of the pain is placed in a large, strong metal box, closed, sealed tightly and locked with a huge, strong padlock
  • You grasp the TV remote control and slowly turn down the pain volume until you can barely hear it; then it disappears entirely
  • The pain is washed away by a cool, calm river flowing through your entire body

For Depression

  • Your troubles and feelings of sadness are attached to big colorful helium
    balloons, and are floating off into a clear blue sky
  • A strong, warm sun breaks through dark clouds
  • You feel a sense of detachment and lightness, enabling you to float easily through your day

For Behavior Change

  • If you are somewhat shy, imagine a vivid, detailed picture of yourself walking up to people and chatting with them confidently
  • If you want to be more physically active, see yourself walking in the park, riding a bike, taking a dance class, or joining a sports team

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.

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Written by David S. Sobel MD

Explore Wellness in 2021