Group practicing Guided Imagery

Guided Imagery: A New Approach for Conventional Healthcare

The lights are dimmed. The group begins to settle.

Full attention is focused on deep breathing. A soothing melody gently begins to fill the room with calming notes. Eyes gradually close. The facilitator’s words meticulously paint a multi-sensory mental image of a picturesque pond amidst a row of willow trees, a glorious field of flowers anointed by the scent of spring and a refreshing breeze choreographing swaying treetops. As each person progressively settles into a relaxed sense of calm and inner peace, biology begins to change.

At first, heart rate drops, breathing deepens and blood pressure begins to fall as muscle tension seems to gradually evaporate. The stresses and burdens of life give way to a rejuvenating sense of tranquility. The time is pensive. Thinking becomes clearer and sharper as one learns to connect with the inner self. Some people pray. Others discover the answers that are buried deep within.

What I’ve briefly described is a guided imagery session. And while you might believe that such an experience is as far from conventional medicine as possible, I’m delighted to tell you that such is not the case. Guided imagery is now becoming mainstream.

Not only is it offered at more than 3,000 hospitals and renowned university medical centers throughout the world, it is also gaining respect and a dedicated following from leading insurers and HMOs.

On May 5, 2000, USA Today reported that Blue Shield of California is offering a new prescription: “free audiocassettes for patients aimed at harnessing their imagination to promote healing.”

The tapes, created by Belleruth Naparstek (Healing Journeys –, an experienced and charismatic counselor, provide opportunities for people to learn to cope and deal with many of life’s greatest challenges. Her repertoire of programs covers health topics that range from stress reduction, insomnia, headaches, cancer, diabetes, and surgery to post-traumatic stress disorder, smoking cessation, grief, HIV and others.

Blue Shield is committed to reaching 5,000-7,000 patients each year with her surgical counseling tapes coupled with a phone consultation from a nurse to track outcomes compared with individuals who do not use the tapes.

According to Bruce Bodaken, Chairman and CEO of Blue Shield of California, “This program supports our members’ desire to utilize complementary therapies and helps members become more active participants in their health, particularly at a time when they are most vulnerable.”

It is also likely that Blue Shield decided to test the waters based upon a rapidly emerging bank of scientific data suggesting guided imagery efficacy. Published peer-reviewed research studies performed at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, Memorial Sloan Kettering, UC Davis Medical Center and the Pennsylvania State College of Medicine have demonstrated statistically significant reductions of hospital stays, diminished blood loss and reduced need for pain medications.

Based upon the wide-spread utilization of guided imagery in the healthcare arena, it should not be surprising that this approach is rapidly gaining acceptance in other areas as well. Naparstek’s tapes are presently being used by survivor’s of the shootings in Littleton, Colorado and the tornados in Oklahoma. The department of Veteran’s Affairs is offering her program for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients who survived the Vietnam war. One Veteran, Jim O’Rourke, admits that at first he was fully prepared to dismiss guided imagery. He stated, “A few of the fellows thought the tapes sounded sissyish. All that talk about putting your heart back together. But I was pretty desperate for help, and I’m sure that I’m changed because of the tape.”

And many others have benefited as well through the dedicated efforts of Belleruth, Bernie Siegel, MD, Patricia Palmer, EdD and a growing number of healthcare professionals who recognize the need to encourage people to take an active role in their own healing process.

From clinical and research perspectives, guided imagery plays an important role in our disease-based integrative outpatient programs. We are also in the midst of a hospital-based pilot project testing the effects of using guided imagery tapes before, during and after surgery. While the data is not in, initial patient comments appear to reflect a favorable trend.

In conclusion, with so much negative self-talk these days coupled with a desperate need to encourage self-care in our nation, this physician is convinced that the use of guided imagery is now firmly established as a growing practice in the conventional medicine arena — Mind Over Matter!

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Written by Barry Bittman MD

Explore Wellness in 2021