Estimates indicate that one in five American citizens older than 18, and one in three teenagers, have experienced anxiety in the past year. Anxiety affects health in many ways — it increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol which may increase blood pressure, bring heart problems, kidney disease, and decrease your libido.
What is guided imagery?
Guided imagery, also called visualization or guided self-hypnosis, is a mild but effective mind-body technique that has gained quite a bit popularity in more recent years. The name visualization itself can be misleading, as it implies that the technique involves only the visual sense, but it actually involves all the senses.
It’s an intervention that can be practiced at home with either a book or an audio recording, or with a therapist. It is able to relax your body as well as mind, and it’s relatively easy to master.
Some tips how to perform guided imagery include:
- Make sure your body is calm before you start working on calming your mind.
- Before you start with the process, imagine your special place, either real or made up, it’s only important that the scene brings you joy.
- The place can have as many details as you like.
- Some people imagine lying on a beach; others prefer a cabin on the mountain, or sitting by the river.
- This should be your place to go when you feel anxious and stressed out, so it’s important to get familiar with it so you can escape there at any moment.
This practice is very portable; it relies on nothing except your own concentration and imagination, and this is why it’s getting so much popularity lately. However, like anything else that needs mental concentration, visualization and guided imagery is usually most successful when practiced without constant distractions and interruptions. Your bedroom right before bed or even bathroom can be used in the lack of a more private area to focus.
One example of visualization
I’m on a beach, it’s around 6 PM. The weather is perfect, the sun has almost set but it’s still warm enough to hang out wearing a swimsuit. I’m wearing my sunglasses and lying on my back, looking up the sky. The wind is slightly moving sunshades made of coconut palm leaves. There are a few cirrus clouds in the sky – you know, those feathery little fellows that hurt nobody but bring joy when it gets too sunny. I can hear seagulls somewhere, not too near. A few miles away there’s a paragliding club and I can hear their loud voices. Some people are swimming, some are passing by. The waves are slowly hitting the shore, over and over again.
Guided imagery: What does the science say?
Patients all across the world have reported reduced stress, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms related to the health issues they were treating with this mind-body technique.
Research has shown that visualization may improve your health in many ways:
- It can help reduce stress
- It can reduce feelings of depression
- It can increase the amount of immune system cells that should keep your body healthy
- Increase the overall feeling of good health and well-being
Guided imagery is proven to boost the immune system and relieve moodiness, anxiety and depression in prior breast cancer patients, but reportedly, it doesn’t do anything for fibromyalgia patients. You can never know unless you try for yourself!
How to combine guided imagery with other forms of relaxation
This technique is often practiced by itself, but also frequently combined with physical forms of relaxation techniques like massage or progressive muscle relaxation. This can lead to additional benefits, as a combo of guided imagery and another relaxation technique can teach you to associate the feeling of calmness with a visual image. This, in theory, means that bring that image up again also induces the same relaxation.
There are many CDs that can be purchased and more than enough free samples and YouTube videos explaining how to use visualization and guided imagery to reduce your anxiety symptoms. Even five minutes a day can be quite effective and transformative. Studies have shown that people who spent only five minutes a day practicing visualization and guided meditation significantly decreased their stress levels and anxiety.