Visualization and guided imagery are gentle, yet powerful techniques that focus the imagination and the power of the mind in positive ways.
They can be as simple as an athlete’s five-second pause before leaping off the diving board, imagining how a perfect dive feels when slicing through the water. Conversely, it can be as complex as imagining the buzz of loyal immune cells, swarming out of the thymus gland on a search and destroy mission to wipe out cancer cells.
While there are subtle differences between visualization and guided imagery, the terms are often interchangeable. Visualization (sometimes referred to as creative visualization) involves mentally transporting to a pleasant place or memory. Guided imagery is a little different, as it allows a meditator or practitioner to describe a pleasant place to the user. Fundamentally, these two share the same principle.
When we visualize an act, the neurons in our brains are capable of interpreting imagery as equivalent to a real-life action. Because the brain’s cells and neurons constantly make new connections and disrupt old ones based on response to stimuli, visualization can create changes in the brain’s structure and neural circuits. This is the idea of experience-based neuroplasticity.
Contrary to meditation, the act of visualizing is diametrically different. Meditation is about quieting the mind and tuning into other frequencies of the brain. Meditation is restful, whereas visualization is active. The former helps calm the nervous system, whereas the latter can help reprogram it. In fact, visualization and guided imagery is part of techniques psychotherapists use as a cognitive/behavioral technique.
We can use the power of our mind to to change our mindset, habits and physical health. So, if we visualize our immune system protecting us against a disease, our body could act out those mental images. Similarly, if we visualize a specific life outcome, our mindset changes, paving the road to achieve said result.
In fact, numerous studies showed visualization and guided imagery can produce meaningful changes. There are three generally agreed-upon, simple mind-body principles that help explain why the act of visualizing works:
Guided imagery and visualizations have been used for centuries as a medical therapy. Evidence shows Tibetan monks began using these techniques as early as the 13th century, imagining Buddha curing disease. Others believe that it has been used for even longer, going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Many people trace the use of visualization and guided imagery in medicine to Helen Bonny (1921-2010). She was a music therapist who explored the way music affects the mind and how it can expand consciousness. In the 1970’s she joined with consciousness researchers who sought treatment for patients with serious illnesses like cancer using psychedelic and psychotropic drugs. Through her work, music became an important element of this research to help patients explore their inner mental state, selecting and sequencing music to maximize the therapeutic effect. She developed a process called the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, which is psychotherapy based on music and a trained facilitator.
For much of the latter 20th century, many doctors continued to view imagery as quack science. A number of pioneers in the field changed these perceptions, however, with research that later backed it up. The concept of imagery therapy was popularized in modern times with the best-selling book Getting Well Again (1979), which described the experience of Carl and Stephanie Simonton as they treated cancer patients using imagery and various other forms of therapy.
In 1985, the alternative health advocate and pioneer in guided imagery named Jeanne Achterberg published Imagery in Healing. This influential book explores the use of imagery and the positive impact it can have on the course of illness. The book brought together modern research with the practice of early healers with her claim that imagery is the oldest form of healing in the world. This book is now a classic in the alternative medicine field.
Another early advocate of guided imagery was Leslie Davenport, who founded the Humanities Program at Marin General Hospital in the late 1980s. Davenport’s book, Healing and Transformation Through Self-Guided Imagery discusses tantric yoga, a practice that influenced Buddhism and Hinduism, which encouraged followers to visualize a sacred image with the belief that gods speak to humans through imagery.
Meanwhile, Dr. Martin Rossman, who co-founded the Academy of Guided Imagery, published Guided Imagery for Self-Healing: An Essential Resource. This book explains that ancient Greeks used guided imagery in their culture and viewed imagination as an organ. Today, guided imagery is an accepted form of complementary and alternative medicine. In fact, it is used in conjunction with traditional treatments by clinics, hospitals and health care providers around the world.
Many people use visualization and guided imagery to relax and refuel, since there are a variety of physical health benefits to guided visualization. These include a lowering of blood pressure as well as the level of stress hormones in the blood. After quieting the body and mind, these individuals feel full of energy and exceedingly relaxed.
Others used repeated visualizations to achieve personal or professional goals. By visualizing every detail of his course beforehand, for example, a runner can improve his skills and increase his performance. A store manager may visualize himself or herself becoming more self-confident in a work situation that would otherwise be uncomfortable.
Still others are searching for a deeper awareness of themselves. They use guided visualization to find that place within themselves where they can get in touch with their intuition. Through images and sometimes feelings that come up for them, they often find answers they had been struggling to find. A person uncertain about career direction, for example, turn to guided visualization as one tool to help find the right path.
Visualization is usually a personal practice where one drifts away in thoughts that project an expected outcome. Guided imagery, however, requires a practitioner to guide user(s) through the thought process during the session.
In the United States, there is no formal licensing process for guided imagery practitioners. However, many schools have training programs that lead to certification in guided imagery. Some of these programs are specifically intended for people who already have a state-issued license in a health profession. Sometimes it is intended more specifically for people who are mental health practitioners, such as psychotherapists.
The best institution to get training in this field is the Academy for Guided Imagery, which offers professional certifications. Interested practitioners must complete 150 hours of training, 33 hours of independent study, and be licensed to practice as a mental health professional. Health educators, personal coaches, body workers and counselors may also pursue training in this method.
Training, which consists of three levels that must be completed within 24 months, is offered through home-study modules and online group study workshops. Additional continued education training is also available through AGI’s website.
Since visualization is a personal practice, the experience depends on one’s personal preferences. Usually, the user finds a comfortable place and can use music to help with the process of creative visualization. This process involves creativity and belief. Creativity comes in the form of breaking down barriers and preconceived notions in order to allow for the visualization of the most ideal outcomes. Belief comes in the form of avoiding any argument that can invalidate or ridiculo said thoughts.
For guided imagery can use live practitioners or pre-recorded sessions. The limitation of the latter is that it uses a standard approach, which may not be suitable for the user. When working with a practitioner, there is commonly an intake interview, where the practitioner understands the user’s goals and adjusts the session accordingly.
Guided imagery can be in groups or in one-to-one sessions and can last an average of 20 to 30 minutes. In a typical guided imagery session:
Here are some fascinating facts that illustrate the power that active visualizations can bring:
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 know now 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. Because it is a right-brained activity, engaging in it will often be accompanied by emotion, intuition, among others.
People can invent their own imagery, or they can listen to imagery created for them. Either way, their own imaginations will sooner or later take over, because the mind will automatically edit, skip or change what’s being offered for what is needed. So, even a written script will become an internal launching pad for the genius of each person’s unique imagination.
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