What is Guided Imagery?
Excerpted from Staying Well with Guided Imagery © Naparstek, 1994 and Invisible Heroes © Naparstek, 2005
Guided imagery is a gentle but powerful technique that focuses and directs the imagination in proactive, positive ways. It can be just as simple as an athlete’s 10-second reverie, just before leaping off the diving board, imagining how a perfect dive feels when slicing through the water. Or it can be as complex as imagining the busy, focused buzz of thousands of loyal immune cells, scooting out of the thymus gland on a search and destroy mission to wipe out unsuspecting cancer cells.
Although it has been called “visualization” and “mental imagery”, these terms are misleading. Guided imagery involves far more than just the visual sense and this is a good thing, given the fact that only about 55% of the population is strongly wired visually. Instead, guided imagery techniques involve all of the senses, and almost anyone can do this.
Neither is it strictly a “mental” activity. It involves the whole body, the emotions and all the senses, and it is precisely this body-based focus that makes for its powerful impact.
So when someone asks us, “What is guided imagery?”, which happens hundreds of times each week, we never answer using those terms.
When properly constructed, guided imagery meditation has the built-in capacity to deliver multiple layers of complex, encoded messages by way of simple symbols and metaphors. You might say it acts like a depth charge dropped beneath the surface of the psyche, where it can reverberate again and again.
Over the past 40 years, the effectiveness of guided imagery has been increasingly established by research findings that demonstrate its positive impact on health, creativity and performance. We now know that in many instances even 10 minutes of imagery can reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol and glucose levels in the blood, and heighten short- term immune cell activity. It can reduce blood loss during surgery and morphine use after it. It lessens headaches and pain. It can increase skill at skiing, skating, tennis, writing, acting and singing; it accelerates weight loss and reduces anxiety; and it has been shown, again and again, to reduce the aversive effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, especially nausea, depression, soreness and fatigue.
Because of the brain structures involved when guided imagery techniques are deployed, it will often heighten emotion, laughter, sensitivity to music, openness to spirituality, intuition, abstract thinking and empathy.
And because it mobilizes unconscious and pre-conscious processes to assist with conscious goals, it can bring to bear much more of a person’s strength and motivation to accomplish a desired end.
So, subtle and gentle as this technique is, guided imagery meditation can be very powerful, and more and more so over time.
One of the most appealing and forgiving features about imagery is that almost anyone can use it. Although children and women probably have a slight, natural advantage, imagery skips across the barriers of education, class, race, gender and age – a truly equal opportunity intervention.
Even though it is a form of meditation, guided imagery is easier for most to use than mindfulness meditation, as it requires less time and discipline to develop a high level of skill. This is because it seduces the mind with appealing sensory images that have their own natural pull. And because it results in a kind of naturally immersive trance state, it is rightly called a form of self-hypnosis as well.
People can invent their own imagery, or they can listen to imagery that’s been created for them. Either way, their own imaginations will sooner or later take over, because, even when listening to imagery that’s been recorded, the mind will automatically edit, skip, change or substitute what’s being offered for what is needed, becoming a kind of internal launching pad for the genius of each person’s unique imagination.