How Imagery Works

Mechanisms of Action according to basic principles of Interactive Guided Imagery

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Although no one really knows what “consciousness” is, it is critically related to the process of attention, for what we attend to and focus on is what we experience. There is an old saying that “whatever you give your attention to grows,” whether it’s your garden, your children, or your worries and fears.

Over the years, most of us learn to give our major attention to the conscious mind and the chatter of its little voice that narrates a linear, logical, rational, analytic monologue describing its perspective of the world and how we think about it. We quickly become lost in our thoughts, forgetting that any other parts of us exist.

However, we are much more than are conscious mind and what it thinks. We are also characterized by the richness of our unconscious mind and its intuitions, emotions, feelings, memories, drives, motives, goals, appetites, aspirations, ambitions, values, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions, all of which are expressed more fully by our imagery experiences than by conscious verbal awareness. Yet, in our Western culture, we tend to pay much less attention to these images and the feelings they convey than we do to the “little voice” of our conscious mind.

Therapeutic guided imagery allows clients to enter a relaxed state of mind, and then to focus their attention on images associated with the issues they are confronting. For example, one can invite an image to form that represents a particular medical symptom, and then initiate an imaginary dialogue with the image to ask why it’s there, what it wants, what it needs, where it’s going, and what it has to offer. The information obtained from such a dialogue can often be more directly helpful than even the most sophisticated medical diagnostic tests.

Patients coping with chronic pain can be invited to visit and experience an “Inner Sanctuary” where there is no pain, and those facing difficult medical decisions can be introduced to a wise and caring “Inner Advisor” that can provide support and help to explore their feelings about the various options they are considering.

By using an interactive, non-judgmental, content-free guiding style, experienced imagery practitioners can encourage patients to tap their latent inner resources to find new and creative solutions for their own problems. The consistent emphasis on inner resources and solutions lead to minimal transference, greater opportunities for effective client self-care, an enhanced sense of self-efficacy, and the rapid development of patient autonomy.

Biologic Mechanism of Action

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Imagery has profound physiological consequences, and the body tends to respond to imagery as it would to a genuine external experience. For example, if you vividly imagine slowly sucking on the sour, tart slice of a fresh, juicy lemon, you will soon begin to salivate. Another example is sexual fantasy and its attendant physiologic responses. What happens to your body when you bring to mind something that makes you ferociously angry?

Imagery has been shown to affect almost all major physiologic systems of the body, including respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, metabolic rates in cells, gastrointestinal mobility and secretion, sexual function, cortisol levels, blood lipids, and even immune responsiveness (see Research Findings).

With respect to producing specific physiological changes that can promote healing, guided imagery represents an important alternative to pharmacotherapy with much greater safety and far fewer complications, precautions, and contra-indications.