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Winifred Lender: Guided Imagery Is a Powerful Tool for Mastery and Relaxation

By Winifred Lender, Noozhawk Columnist |

If you watched the recent Winter Olympics you might have seen athletes who appeared to be in a meditative state; some with eyes closed sitting quietly and others with eyes opened and arms and legs moving around, as though they were rehearsing their upcoming routine.

They appeared calm, intently focused and unaware of the whirlwind of activity around them. These athletes were engaging in guided imagery. This technique has been shown to improve the performance of elite athletes, such as the Olympians, as well as regular athletes.

In addition to enhancing performance, guided imagery has been found to increase relaxation and lead to overall well-being. For example, this technique has been linked to reduced pain in a number of clinical populations (e.g. children with abdominal pain, individuals with fibromyalgia, cardiac patients), improved healing after surgery, decreased latency to fall asleep, less stress and anxiety, decreased blood pressure and improved mood.

Guided imagery is a simple and effective technique that focuses and directs the imagination. It utilizes all the senses, emotion and cognition, and can be performed by people of all different ages. In guided imagery, people experience via imagination an event that evokes the emotion, sensations and thoughts of the actual experience. If very focused, people will enter a clam state and become almost unaware of what is going on around them. Research using brain scans has found that people engaging in guided imagery show the activation of parts of the brain responsible for sensations, cognitions and emotions that are associated with the actual act they are imaging.

Guided imagery can be practiced alone or with the help of facilitator. The process of guided imagery starts with the creation of a script that details an upcoming event. The script is highly specific and focuses on all the sensations that accompany each component act of the activity. For example, a person using guided imagery to prepare for a speech might have several first component steps in the script that include: “I walk on the stage. I hear the thud of my shoes on the wood floor, squint with the bright lights before me and feel the cool air rush toward me. My legs move quickly and my hands swing naturally as I walk to the podium. My hands feel the cool wood as I grasp the sides of the podium. I take a deep breath and feel the air rush into my lungs. I exhale and feel my muscles relax. I look out into the audience. I see the bright lights. I clear my throat and smile. I feel my calm, slow breath as it goes in and out. The words come out of my mouth easily and my heartbeat is calm.”

The detailed script can be read and reread with additional details included as needed. The goal is to create enough detail so that a person could have a vivid image of the event, using only the script for guidance. The script then can be recorded and can be listened to daily. When listening to the recording, one should adapt a relaxed position and focus on hearing the script and experiencing the guided images. At first, the task may seem unnatural, but with practice the experience can become very vivid to the extent that you may become unaware of what is going on outside of the guided imagery tape. The daily practice of taking time to listen to the tape is an important component of guided imagery.

The guided imagery script can change with time and as mastery is experienced. For example, a child who is very anxious about petting dogs, might be given an initial script that involves her being in the same room with a small dog. The next script might have her sitting close to the dog. By pairing the relaxation and mastery of guided imagery with an increasing hierarchy of demands, the child will slowly develop the ability to remain calm while being guided through a scenario in which she is ultimately touching a dog. Next, the success in the imagined experience can be generalized to the real world.

Guided imagery can be used not only to enhance performance on a particular task, but to improve health and increase relaxation. Guided imagery that focuses on deep breathing and muscle relaxation may be used to induce a relaxed state. The relaxation script may entail having people visualize the air going in and out of their lungs like a balloon expanding and shrinking or their blood flowing through their body like a stream. The recordings can encourage people to engage in activities such as stretching, deep breathing and muscle relaxation that induces calmness while envisioning scenes that may produce endorphins to lead to overall well-being.

The power of guided imagery is due to several factors. First, by engaging in the scripted imagery, people can exert control over the image and eventual experience, moving away from self-defeating ruminations that may accompany new events. For example, instead of thinking about all that could go wrong when you give a speech, the guided imagery forces you to focus on an imagined sequence that is controllable and positive. Likewise, a person with heart disease that has anxiety around their health, might be forced to focus on relaxing their body, slowing their breathing and envisioning blood flowing well; behaviors that distract them from their anxiety and the muscle tension and the shallow breathing that may accompany it.

Second, anxiety about a new experience can be due to the fact that it is unknown, and the more we practice the experience, the unknown will becomes familiar and the anxiety is likely to decrease. This can be particularly empowering to children, who may feel they lack control in a new situations.

Third, by engaging in guided imagery we are able to practice the task at hand providing our neural pathways with repetition of the act that will only help to bolster our performance. Finally, by practicing a successful outcome to the experience we may increase the likelihood of actually succeeding in the real life task. In essence, the practice may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Whether your goal is to run a race more quickly, give a speech, decrease your blood pressure or simply attain a more relaxed state, consider guided imagery as an effective tool. This simple, yet productive technique can help you open new doors, achieve greater levels of performance, and break through barriers that are holding you back.

— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.


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