Guided imagery is using mental pictures to help reduce anxiety and increase calm thoughts and feelings. While the term “guided” suggests you must have a partner, giving instructions and helping you through the process, this technique can be used as a partner exercise or by yourself. The goal of guided imagery is to get rid of the negative thoughts and images and replace them with a more calming, relaxing image. To be most successful, images are not just pictures in your mind, but “experiences” where you transport yourself to a calming, relaxing and safe place that you feel with all of your senses.
Our minds don’t necessarily know the difference between “real” and “imagined” and we can therefore physically and emotionally react to an image in our mind. This often works to our disadvantage, for example, in a report, “Mental imagery in anxiety disorders” a study showed that participants with social phobia who imagined a “negative self-image” while holding a conversation with someone they didn’t know felt anxious and “believed they looked more anxious.” On the other hand, those that imagined themselves not being anxious rated themselves as calmer and pictured themselves as not looking as anxious. [“Mental imagery in anxiety disorders,” 2007, Psychiatry, pp161-165]
Benefits of Guided Imagery
Guided imagery has overall health benefits. Taking just 10 minutes to focus on a calming experience can help to reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol and glucose levels and improve your immune system. It has overall benefits on your health, creativity and performance. It accelerates weight loss, reduces anxiety and improves cancer patient’s ability to manage adverse effects of chemotherapy. [“Guided Imagery,” 2000, HealthJourneys]
There are a number of types of treatments for anxiety that must be done in conjunction with a doctor or therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy, medication and talk therapy all require a medical professional. But guided imagery can be used with a therapist or by yourself. According to Belleruth Naparstek on HealthJourneys, “One of the most appealing and forgiving features about imagery is that almost anyone can use it…imagery skips across the barriers of education, class, race, gender and age - a truly equal opportunity intervention.”
Practicing Guided Imagery
So how do you use guided imagery to help you reduce your symptoms of anxiety? Certainly, if you currently work with a therapist, you can begin working together, coming up with scripts and processes for you to use during times of high stress.
There are also a number of websites that offer guided imagery scripts to help in various situations. Googling “guided imagery scripts” will give you many different choices. Go through the various sites to find the scripts that best fit your situation. There are also companies that offer CDs that will lead you through the guided imagery process. HealthJourneys.com is one such company.
If writing your own guided imagery script, there are some tips to help:
Scripts should include all of the senses. In other words, don’t just picture a situation, but give it enough details for you to taste, smell, touch, see and hear what is going on around you.
Know the purpose of the script before you write it. What do you want to accomplish? Do you need to give a presentation and want to picture yourself successfully standing up in front of co-workers with a powerful and interesting presentation? Do you want to talk to someone you don’t know? Do you want to get on an elevator? Drive somewhere by yourself? Knowing the purpose will help you create a specific script for your individual situation.
Believe in the power of guided imagery. Don’t berate the idea by telling yourself, “This will never work.” Instead, focus on the positive and believe that you can change your life by first imagining changes.
Spend a few minutes on relaxation exercises before you begin writing your script. It is important to be relaxed when you begin. Take some time to practice deep breathing, meditation or yoga so you are in the right frame of mind.
Write down important points you want to include in your script. Be sure to include areas that make you particularly nervous, creating a situation in your mind that you are involved in this activity without being nervous.
Once you have prepared, write a “story” of the situation you want to make it through. Picture yourself without anxiety and write down what it looks like. As in the tip above, include different senses in your description so you not only see yourself in this situation but you are transported there though sight, smell, hearing, etc. Throughout your script, remind yourself you are safe and free of anxiety.
When you have completed your script, practicing using it, filling in different areas to make it more complete and thorough. Continue using your script on a daily basis, until when you think of the particular situation, you automatically envision your scripted version rather than the negative, anxiety-ridden version you previously thought of.
As you master the situation, think of another area that fills you with dread and anxiety and write a script to help you master that experience.
“Guided Imagery,” 2000, Belleruth Napastrek, HealthJourneys.com
“Guided Imagery for Anxiety,” 2009, Karen Cooper, LCSW and Susan Stolllings, Ph.D., Medical College of Wisconsin
“Mental Imagery in Anxiety Disorders,” 2007, Colette R. Hirsch and Emily A. Holmes, Psychiatry, pp. 161-165
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.