Stuck in a rut? Overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed? You may be able to pull yourself out of a funk, reduce stress, and feel more centered with a simple mind-body technique called visualization.
Think of visualization as a virtual vacation. By imagining—or visualizing— a safe, pleasant, calm place, you can whisk away worries. “It could be as simple as picturing yourself on your favorite beach,” says Kathy Gruver, PhD, author of Conquer Your Stress with Mind/Body Techniques (Infinity, 2013). “See the light sparkling in the ocean, feel the water lapping up at your feet, hear the sound of the surf and the birds overhead, taste the salt on your lips. The more real you make it, the more beneficial it will be.”
Also called guided imagery, visualization has been used to relieve conditions ranging from headaches to hot flashes. It is especially helpful during stressful situations—for example, “if you are feeling overwhelmed by negative things, worried about a meeting with your boss, a first date, Thanksgiving with the family, or if you want to make changes in your life or health,” Dr. Gruver says.
How does it work? “Our brains can’t tell the difference between what we’re really experiencing and what we think, which is why dwelling on negative things is so harmful,” Dr. Gruver explains. “But if we imagine something relaxing, pretty, and soothing, our body will follow suit.”
Recent studies confirm the benefits:
- Breast cancer survivors who practiced guided imagery reported enhanced quality of life, reduced fatigue, less distress, and better sleep, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Psycho- Oncolog1
- Patients undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer reported significantly less stress and fatigue after practicing guided imagery for four weeks, according to a 2013 Korean study.2
- After eight weeks of practicing guided imagery, patients with chronic pain reported less disability and less pain intensity, according to a 2011 Kent State University study.3
The National Institutes of Health explains that relaxation techniques such as visualization slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and decrease oxygen consumption and levels of stress hormones.4
Want to try it? You can buy guided imagery tapes or DVDs. Or take a group session—guided imagery is often offered as part of a yoga or meditation class. Ohio State University’s Center for Integrative Health and Wellness offers free audio files on its website.5
Or try it on your own. Here’s how:
- Get comfortable in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for at least 10 to 15 minutes (such as your bedroom). Close your eyes.
- Think of the most peaceful place you have ever been, such as a deserted beach or your favorite lake.
- Place yourself in this setting, using all your senses. “See the autumn leaves brightly on the trees. Feel the cool breeze rustle your hair as you sit on the dock. Feel the sun warming your face. Picture the little dots of light on the water as the sun hits it,” suggests Dr. Gruver.
- Breathe deeply as you fully immerse yourself in the location.
- Are you facing a health issue? You can also use visualization to prepare for a procedure or ease pain, Dr. Gruver says. “Imagine angels swooping in and carrying away a growth, or a Pac-Man eating the inflammation. Picture a little construction worker fixing things.
- Don’t worry that you’re not doing it “right,” either. As text on the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center website advises: “Let any thoughts or emotions that may arise…pass through you without engaging or analyzing them. If you feel better afterwards than when you began, you’ve been successful.”6
—By Maryann Hammers
- Freeman LW, White R, Ratcliff CG, et al. A randomized trial comparing live and telemedicine deliveries of an imagery-based behavioral intervention for breast cancer survivors: Reducing symptoms and barriers to care. Psycho-Oncology [early online publication]. August 22, 2014. doi: 10.1002/ pon.3656.
- Lee MH, Kim DH, Yu HS. The effect of guided imagery on stress and fatigue in patients with thyroid cancer undergoing radioactive iodine therapy. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine [early online publication]. November 24, 2013. doi: 10.1155/2013/130324.
- Lewandowski W, Jacobson A, Palmieri PA, Alexander T, Zeller R. Biological mechanisms related to the effectiveness of guided imagery for chronic pain. Biological Research for Nursing. 2011;13(4):364-75. doi: 10.1177/1099800410386475.
- Relaxation Techniques for Health: An Introduction. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. Available at: nccam.nih.gov/health/stress/ relaxation.htm. Accessed October 3, 2014.
- Guided Imagery Practices. The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center website. Available at: http://medicalcenter. osu.edu/patientcare/healthcare_services/ integrative_medicine/clinical-services/ Pages/Guided-Imagery-Practices.aspx. Accessed October 3, 2014.
- Guided Imagery: Helps Reduce Anxiety, Pain and Fatigue. Comprehensive Cancer Center University of Michigan Health System website. Available at: www. mcancer.org/support/managing-emotions/ complementary-therapies/guided-imagery. Accessed October 3, 2014.