Man laying on floor picturing and visualizing healthy thoughts

Put Yourself in the Picture of Health

Humans are image-making creatures. As mentioned in 6: Watch Your Words – Avoid Illness Programming, even without knowing it, you are constantly making mental pictures. As someone gives you directions, you visualize the route. As you read about a place you have never visited, you envision what it must look like. Even though you may never have seen a gallstone or a tumor, the words suggest an image to your mind.

The interesting thing about images is that, somewhat like words, they create emotional states that affect brain chemistry, and brain chemistry will depress or strengthen every system in your body, including your immune system. It pays to know what types of imagery you are generating and how you can make that imagery work for you. Visualization is a powerful tool for personal wellness.

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

– Anonymous

In biofeedback training, for example, people learn to lower their blood pressure by imagining vapors rising from a sun-warmed lake. You can also learn to significantly raise the temperature of your hand by creating a mental picture of your hand being warmed by the sun or being immersed in warm water. Raising your hand temperature has certain health benefits. For instance, it is correlated with a decrease in headache pain.

Holistic cancer support services throughout the world suggest using visualizations along with either conventional or alternative therapies to induce remissions. Patients are routinely taught to combine periodic relaxation with visualizations of healthy, energetic cells fighting and destroying the weaker and disorganized cancer cells.

Visualization skills are taught to business executives to help them expand their creative thinking and to create mental pictures of the goals they want to accomplish. Athletes use visualization in conjunction with physical practice to refine their performance and to build self-confidence. In childbirth, visualization helps a woman remain relaxed and focused during labor. Patients anticipating surgery use visualization to calm their fears and give them a sense of control over their internal states. Visualization is growing in popularity because it works.

What you see is what you get.

– Anonymous

Imagery Experience One: Flip an Image for Symptom Relief

Read this over and then guide yourself through it, or ask a friend to read it slowly to you as you follow the steps.

  1. Take a moment to relax. Breathe deeply and let your body sink into your chair. Close your eyes. Now recall a time in your life when you felt great, when your body was as healthy as it could be. Imagine yourself doing something in that healthy state, such as taking a walk or dancing.
  2. Notice how you are dressed in your mental picture. What does your complexion look like? How is your energy level? Use all your senses to absorb your picture of health. Notice the smile on your face. Breathe.
  3. As you breathe, draw in that image so it deeply penetrates your body. Feel the energy and aliveness that you have in the image. Hold your picture of health for a few minutes.
  4. Now open your eyes. How do you feel?

This exercise is a good way to develop and actually feel the effects of healing imagery. As you become at ease with the process, you can use it to alleviate tension and discomfort associated with a variety of symptoms, such as nausea, headache, or muscle pain. The next imagery exercise will show you how.

Imagery Experience Two:

Flip an Image for Symptom Relief

Your mental images may be keeping you stuck in pain, tension, and depression. But they can be “flipped over” to become healing images, and thus used to alleviate the same pain, tension, or depression.

Read over this whole exercise for yourself first, or ask a friend to read it to you as you follow the steps.

  1. Focus on one problem area. Perhaps it is chronic tension in your right shoulder or the nausea you experience riding in a car or plane. (Even if you are not experiencing any pain or tension now, you can use this exercise to prepare a healing image that will be available to you when you need it.) Note as many sensory aspects of this condition as you can. This will help you create a healing image. Ask yourself:
    • Is there a picture associated with my problem or pain? (For instance, tight, knotted nautical ropes that represent tight muscles or a murky, stagnant pool that stands for nausea.)
    • Is there a sound connected with my problem or pain? (For instance, a grinding or gurgling sound.)
    • Is there a texture associated with it? (A sore throat, for instance, might feel like rough sandpaper; an upset stomach might feel slimy.)
    • Is there a temperature associated with it? (A headache might feel hot; a broken arm might feel cold.)
    • Is there a smell or taste associated with it?
    • Is there a movement associated with it? (Churning, pounding, or stabbing?)
  2. Now for the flipping part. What would the problem or pain look, feel, smell, sound, or taste like when it is alleviated or cured? Flip the image you have of your condition, substituting its opposite. For instance:
    • Knotted ropes are slowly untied and loosely laid out on a deck.
    • A stagnant pool is drained and filled with clear, sweet water.
    • Sunlight penetrates the dark cloud of pain in your head.
    • The sound of a bubbling brook replaces the pounding sound in your head.
  3. Now relax. Take a few slow, deep breaths and recall the healing image you have just created. Use words if necessary to reinforce the image. For instance: “My head is filled with billowy, white clouds.” Continue to rest for at least five or ten minutes (more if possible) as you hold the healing image in your mind’s eye. As your mind wanders or if you are distracted by your pain, gently recall the healing image. Continue to use slow, gentle breathing to deepen your relaxation. Don’t be discouraged if you can�t conjure up all the images we have suggested. Use the ones that are strongest for you. Be patient with yourself in anticipating results, but know that other people have used this exercise to great advantage. Give it a try.

Imagery Experience Three:

Make Your Dreams Come True

Look back to the beginning of this book where you designed a few specific goals for yourself as you began. Choose one of your primary goals and use imagery to form a picture of yourself with that goal already accomplished. For instance, if you are working to relieve backache, create, in your mind’s eye, a picture of yourself moving around your house, or walking or dancing easily, without pain. You may enhance this approach by making a collage of pictures, all indicating the positive outcome of your desired goal. Posting this collage where you will see it often will inspire you to stay oriented toward your goal.

Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.

The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at ( The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

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Written by John W Travis MD MPH

Explore Wellness in 2021