An exploration of Guided Imagery and Visualization

An exploration of Guided Imagery and Visualization

Posted by Virginia Evangelou

What is Guided Imagery?

It’s what we ‘see’ or sense in our imagination. That statement alone is enough to put it in the realm of the unreal, but imagine, if you will, where the human race would be without it.

It took a great deal of imagination, that is, the ability to create new ideas, to invent the wheel, the car, a plane, spacecraft… Anything man-made - built, created or invented - was done so using human imagination. It is not very highly valued in our culture, yet without it we would be long extinct.

The earliest visualization techniques on record are from Sumaria, Babylonia and ancient Egypt. From Hermatic rites to help a person visualize himself in perfect health, to present day pilgrims travelling to Mecca, and from the famous healing temples of ancient Greece to modern day Christian Science, visualization has been employed as a powerful tool for inner change. Many psychologists are recognizing imagery and visualization as among the most powerful tools in cognitive psychology.

According to Martin L. Rossman, M.D. "Imagery is a flow of thoughts you can see, hear, feel, smell or taste. An image is an inner representation of your experience or your fantasies – a way your mind codes, stores and expresses information. Imagery is the currency of dreams and daydreams; memories and reminiscence; plans, projections and possibilities.

It is the language of the arts, the emotions, and most important, the deeper self. Imagery is a window on your inner world; a way of viewing your own ideas, feelings and interpretations. But it is more than just a mere window – it is a means of transformation and liberation from distortions in this realm that may unconsciously direct your life and shape your health."

Dr. Rossman goes on to say that imagery can help health concerns from a simple tension headache or a life-threatening disease. Through imagery you can relax and learn to be more comfortable in any situation, whether you are ill or well. You may be able to reduce, modify or eliminate pain, see if your lifestyle habits have contributed to your illness and decide what changes you can make to support your recovery. Imagery can help you tap inner strengths and find hope, courage, patience, perseverance, love and other qualities that can help you cope with, transcend or recover from almost any illness.

It is refreshing to see the amount of interest being generated in the field of the mind-body connection in the New Millennium. Imagery has been proven to have a remarkable effect on the body, affecting numerous activities including brain wave patterns, blood pressure, sexual arousal, oxygen consumption, levels of hormones in the blood, and immune system function, to name a few. In the larger context of healing, imagery can be a very effective method in aiding recovery from illness, changing relationships and lifestyle and the state of emotions by helping people to imagine what these changes need to be and how best to make them.

Guided imagery is a useful tool to combat this by replacing the negative imagery with positive

Our imagination can get us into all sorts of trouble too. Imagining the outcome of a potentially difficult situation can cause us stress and anxiety before we even actually experience it. Guided imagery is a useful tool to combat this by replacing the negative imagery with positive. We are all familiar with phrases like "I always imagine the worst" or "I’m bound to fail." and "I’ll never be able to do that". These are our present belief systems at work, and although we may have been conditioned to think this way, they can be changed.

Positive reinforcing imagery can alter how we react and 

respond, changing well-worn negative statements into positive ones, e.g. "look on the bright side", "I always try to think positively", and "I’m going to do really well". This doesn’t mean that if you can’t drive you’ll pass your driving test on the first attempt, but if you have the knowledge and ability, utilizing simple imagery techniques can prevent your negative thoughts from sabotaging what you are trying to achieve. Positive imagery is certainly a better use of your mental energy than imagining all the bad things that can happen!

Guided Imagery is, as its name implies, guiding a person or group with words designed to create images for various different purposes, such as relaxation, stress management, healing – both mental and physical, and receiving information from within. These can incorporate the participation of all the senses, as explained by the following simple scenario:

Picture yourself lying under a large tree…..feel the soft warm grass with your hands…..hear the rustling of the leaves over your head…..smell the scent of aromatic flowers wafting gently on the breeze…..picture the tree overhead shading you from the sun…..

What about taste? Try this simple experiment for yourself. After reading this close your eyes, relax, and imagine you are holding a big juicy lemon. Slowly raise the lemon to your mouth and bite deeply into its rind through to the juice…..taste the sharpness on your tongue as you suck the juice into your mouth and swish it slowly around for a few moments…..Did you salivate? Perhaps even wince a little? That was your autonomic nervous system (over which we supposedly have no control) responding to your imaginary lemon!

To explain what is meant by Imagery as oppose to Visualization, Patricia Norris, Ph.D. states:

Visualization is the consciously chosen, intentional instruction to the body. Imagery is the spontaneously occurring "answer", qualifier and modifier from the unconscious.

Thus, a two-way communication is set up by the interplay of visualization and imagery. The visualization acts as a message to the unconscious, the images are messages from the unconscious to consciousness, much as dreams are.

Dina Glouberman, Ph.D. and author of Life Choices, Life Changes – The art of developing personal vision through imagework, clarifies this by saying : The commonly used term ‘visualization’ conjures up the idea of creating visual images, which many people, including myself, find difficult to do. Images can be sensed, felt, heard, smelled and even tasted as well as seen.

So what is a Guided Imagery session like?

Let’s look at a basic Relaxation session. Generally one person or small groups are catered for in a warm, safe, comfortable and enclosed environment. Small because there are less chances of distractions than with larger groups. Warmth as the climate dictates as participants will usually be lying down – mats on the floor with pillows for support and blankets available is ideal, with space between for movement or access if anyone needs to leave. Having said this, an outdoor location can be wonderful if it is quiet, warm and you won’t be disturbed.

Lying is preferable to sitting as complete relaxation is essential. An enclosed space is more secure and people need to feel they are safe, plus the therapist does not want to worry about interruptions. Take the phone off the hook. A ‘Please do not disturb’ sign on the door can prevent people walking in by accident in a more public setting. This may sound a little extreme, but from experience I have to say it is very distracting to be interrupted during a session when everyone is relaxed and working through the imaging process.

Clothing should be loose and comfortable, shoes removed if desired. Carefully selected music can be especially useful to create the right atmosphere and even become part of the experience. Certain ‘natural sounds’ such as birds or whales which, while soothing in the right circumstances, can be distracting from the vocal guidance. Music should enhance rather than interfere. Soft lighting is preferable, such as small lamps or carefully placed candles.

In addition, Aromatherapy oils or incense can create a pleasant ambiance, but should be subtle and not overpowering. Ideally everyone should agree on the scent as if someone doesn’t like a certain smell it will interfere with their concentration. Water and tissues should be available.

A pre-session phase is useful to give participants a brief overview of what will be happening. The session usually starts with a general relaxing exercise, such as some deeper breathing and body awareness. Then the therapist may describe a more detailed visualization in which all 5 senses are used. At this point it should be made clear that it takes practice to imagine with all the senses, for example, some people have great difficulty seeing colours, or imagining a smell, taste, sound or sensation.

Everyone’s ability is different and must be respected. If you are new to imagery, it is perfectly fine to just ‘know’ you are lying on a beach and the sky is blue, and to relax into that awareness. An experienced therapist will make everyone comfortable in the knowledge that their individual observations will be unique, even though the vocal guidance is the same for everyone. Trying too hard will defeat the purpose.

The main aspect of the Guided imagery follows on from this, and the list of places and things that can be incorporated is endless. A common format is to guide the group to a specific location, perhaps a deserted beach, remote mountainside, lush rainforest, tranquil stream etc… and incorporate various ideas designed to make use of the senses without being too complex. Everyone will perceive and interpret these ideas differently.

No two trees will look the same, no two skies will be the same blue, each person will have their own individual experience while "being surrounded by a healing white light" and every lemon will taste unique to its taster, but ultimately the objective of relaxation will be achieved. Don’t be surprised if some people fall asleep. Obviously they are in need of a rest.

The session will be far more successful if the therapist follows a few simple guidelines. The voice should enhance, not interfere with the dialogue, therefore strong accents and the use of too flowery or infrequently used words may be distracting and should be avoided. Dialogue should be kept simple, and spoken in low tones in a pleasant, soothing, calming voice.

Reading someone else’s script can sound forced, and an experienced therapist will create the imagery so it flows naturally. Time must be allowed for people to create each image, whether visually or with the senses: having to rush from the side of the stream, "… over the hills and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go….." while having to observe colours, sounds and smells, will not be conducive to relaxation.

A session is brought to a close by ending the imagery and gently bringing the groups awareness back to the present time and location. A suggestion might be some deep breaths, yawning, body awareness and gentle stretches, followed by turning on one side and slowly sitting up in their own time. Some people will want to share their personal experience while others will want to remain quiet and the space should be held to permit a post-session phase to accommodate everyone.

A typical session may last from 15 minutes to half an hour or more, depending on content and objectives. Sessions can be attended as frequently as the client wishes. There is no known harm that can be caused by imagery, guided or otherwise when used with positive intent. It is not to be confused with Hypnosis - another very effective modality. Complete control is maintained throughout and the recipient decides if and to what extent they participate.

Guided Imagery practitioners come from all walks of life, some are medically trained, and others are alternative therapists or counselors incorporating this method to compliment other treatments. It is wise to check any practitioner’s credentials before embarking on a course of therapy.

In conclusion, I’d like to end with a poignant statement from Dina Glouberman’s book: Do enjoy the process of exploring the world of the imagination in its own right, recognizing that your inner world deserves as much respect as the outer world. Keep in mind however, that its main function is to help you live better here and now. People often talk of the ‘path’ of self-development. But self-development in general, and imagework in particular, is not itself the path of life; it is the means by which we stay on our path.

It is time for the ancient language of imagery to come out of the closet and take its rightful place in our everyday lives.


As I was writing this, the lyrics of a song kept going around in my head, so I hunted them down on the web.

They seem really appropriate for the present time, in terms of world events, so I thought I’d share them.

Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try,
No hell below us, above us only sky,
Imagine all the people, living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too,
Imagine all the people, living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,
I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be a one.

Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people, sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,
I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.

John Lennon. Released September 9th 1971 in the U.S.

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