One of my goals with SherryStrong.org is to introduce concepts and techniques that have been shown to really help women going through cancer diagnosis, treatment and life beyond treatment. Guided imagery is a method I find really fascinating.
The medical industry has known for years that relaxation training and guided imagery can help a patient get through chemotherapy with less anxiety and nausea.
“Guided imagery is a form of deliberate, directed daydreaming—a purposeful use of the imagination to support health and healing,” explained Dr. Chasse Bailey-Dorton, Co-Medical Director for Survivorship & Integrative Oncology, Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, N.C.
“It deploys evocative words and phrases, usually accompanied by music, that are designed to create rich, multi-sensory fantasy and memory. The immersive voice tone, relaxed pacing and choice of language and music create a hypnotic, receptive mind-state that is ideal for supporting desired changes in mind, body, psyche, and spirit.
“Imagery is a specific kind of hypnosis,” she continued. “It also falls under the general category of meditation. In Europe, it is often called autogenic training.”
Guided imagery has become a common service offered by hospitals that have integrative medicine programs. The Cleveland Clinic’s website describes how “[l]ifestyle changes or conditions that require medical or surgical interventions often cause patients to feel out of control, scared or overwhelmed. Fear of pain is a commonly expressed concern.
“Clinical studies show that anxiety can [a]ffect pain, prolong recovery time and lower the immune system. Guided imagery can bring about the state of mind and body most conducive to healing – deep relaxation and positive focus.”
Levine’s Dr. Bailey-Dorton cautioned that referring to guided imagery as “visualization” is misleading. “Only half the population is strongly wired for visual memory, and they will assume they cannot do this if they think of it as a visual tool,” she explained. “Rather, effective guided imagery uses not just sight but also sound, smell, taste and—most importantly—feel. It can also evoke emotion to enhance its efficacy.”
She described three basic operating principles behind the effectiveness of guided imagery:
- To the body, sensory images created in the mind are almost as real as actual events.
- In a relaxed, altered state (trance state), we are capable of more rapid and intense healing, growth, learning and change.
- When we have at our disposal a technique that gives us a sense of autonomy and locus of control, we are empowered to feel better and do better.
“Guided imagery, by its very nature, combines all three of these principles, resulting in a user-friendly, versatile, portable inner tool kit, available any time and any place, to help people maximally achieve their healing or performance goals.”
So, who can benefit from guided imagery? “Typically, patients who are musicians, athletes, dancers, artists, and creative writers are more likely to take quickly to guided imagery and access a deep, immersive trance state with ease,” she said.
“Unless the context is facing surgery or some other daunting performance deadline, women are more likely to try imagery and respond well to it than men; and children more than adults.
“Adolescents are very strong responders, once persuaded to give it a try. Similarly, women in childbirth are already in a trance and are strong responders.”
Maureen Wallace writes for SherryStrong and shared her own experience as a teenager struggling with chronic headaches. “The doctors thought they were stress-induced and sent me to a therapist. I no longer remember what we talked about, but I will always have in my mind the image he literally guided me to create as a stress reliever.”
“It was like painting a picture, one color at a time. He walked me through imagining a grassy knoll by a brook, next to a tall oak tree. I don’t remember what he defined and what my mind created, but I can still travel to that spot in my mind anytime, and it calms my mind.”
Teenage angst isn’t quite comparable to fighting cancer, but helping a patient to create a safe place – a calming, reassuring place – is such a powerful tool.
Dr. Bailey-Dorton said ultimately, it’s impossible to consistently predict who will do well with guided imagery, but what do we have to lose from trying it out? “If the patient finds it difficult or uncomfortable, we of course move on,” she said.
More: Check out Dr. Bailey-Dorton’s favorite resource for guided imagery and meditation