Guided Imagery

July 10, 2005 at 12:32 pm  •  Posted in Stress Management by  •  0 Comments

By Belleruth Naparstek, MSW

What Is Guided Imagery?
Proven Effectiveness
First Principle: The Mind-Body Connection
Second Principle: The Altered State
Third Principle: Locus of Control


What Is Guided Imagery?

Guided imagery is a gentle but powerful technique that focuses and directs the imagination. 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, imagery involves 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.

When properly constructed, imagery has the built-in capacity to deliver multiple layers of complex, encoded messages by way of simple symbols and metaphors. You could say it acts like a depth charge dropped beneath the surface of the “bodymind”, where it can reverberate again and again.

Proven Effectiveness

Over the past 25 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 considerably 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, especially nausea, depression and fatigue.

Because it is a right-brained activity, engaging in it will often be accompanied by other functions that reside in that vicinity: 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, it 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 can be considered a kind of meditation, it is easier for most westerners to use than traditional 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 natural trance state, it can be considered a form of 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 created in advance, the mind will automatically edit, skip, change or substitute what’s being offered for what is needed. So even a tape, CD or written script will become a kind of internal launching pad for the genius of each person’s unique imagination.

3 Principles of Guided Imagery

Guided imagery works because of 3 very simple, common-sense principles. You already know them.

First Principle: The Mind-Body Connection

First of all, to the body, images created in the mind can be almost as real as actual, external events. The mind doesn’t quite get the difference. That’s why, when we read a recipe, we start to salivate. The mind is constructing images of the food — how it looks, tastes and smells; it might even be evoking the sounds of the food cooking or the feel of its texture as it’s being chewed. And all the while, the body is thinking “dinner is served”, and is responding by generating saliva and appetite.

The mind cues the body especially well if the images evoke sensory memory and fantasy – sights, sounds, smells, feel and taste – and when there is a strong emotional element involved. So, for instance, a strongly evocative image might be remembering the sound and timbre of Daddy’s smiling voice, telling you he’s proud of you; or the internal bristling of energy all through your body as you realize that you are about to triumph at something… that you are home free… golden.

These sensory images are the true language of the body, the only language it understands, immediately and without question.

Second Principle: The Altered State

Secondly, in the altered state, we’re capable of more rapid and intense healing, growth, learning and performance. We are even more intuitive and creative. In this ordinary but profound mind-state, our brainwave activity and our biochemistry shift. Our moods and cognition change. We can do things we couldn’t in a normal, waking state – lift a tree that has fallen on a child; write an extraordinarily delicious poem; replace our terror of a surgical procedure with a calming sense of safety and optimism; abate a life-threatening histamine response to a bee sting.

We wander in and out of altered states all through the day, as a matter of course. Sometimes it’s not a conscious choice, and we drive past our exit on the highway. At best, the altered state is a state of relaxed focus, a kind of calm but energized alertness, a highly functional form of focused reverie. Attention is concentrated on one thing or on a very narrow band of things.

As this happens, we find we have a heightened sensitivity to the object of our attention, and a decreased awareness of other things going on around us, things we would ordinarily notice. We are so engrossed, we lose track of time or don’t hear people talking to us. Or we are so focused on our tennis, we don’t realized we were playing on a broken ankle, and the pain isn’t perceived until the game is over.

The altered state is the power cell of guided imagery. When we consciously apply it, we have an awesome ally, a prodigious source of internal strength and skill.

Third Principle: Locus of Control

The third principle is often referred to in the medical literature as the “locus of control” factor.

When we have a sense of being in control, that, in and of itself, can help us to feel better and do better.

Feeling in control is associated with higher optimism, self esteem, and ability to tolerate pain, ambiguity and stress. Decades of research in ego psychology informs us that we feel better about ourselves and perform better when we have a sense of mastery over the environment. Conversely, a sense of helplessness lowers self-esteem, our ability to cope and our optimism about the future.

Because guided imagery is an entirely internally driven activity, and the user can decide when, where, how and if it is applied, it has the salutary effect of helping us feel we have some control.

So, when you put all this together, you have a technique that generates an altered state, in which the mind is directed toward multi-sensory images that the body perceives as real. This is done exactly when, where and how the user wishes. And that’s why it’s so effective.

© Naparstek 2000
© Staying Well with Guided Imagery, 1994

To read more writings on guided imagery by Belleruth Naparstek, go to

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Association of Social Workers or its members.

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