What is guided imagery?
Guided imagery, sometimes known as "visualization," is a technique in which a person imagines pictures, sounds, smells, and other sensations associated with reaching a goal. Imagining being in a certain environment or situation can activate the senses, producing a physical or psychological effect.
Studies have shown that practicing guided imagery may be able to:
- temporarily increase numbers of immune system cells to keep the rest of your body healthy
- help reduce feelings of depression
- increase feelings of well-being
What to expect in a typical guided imagery session
Guided imagery can be practiced at home with a book or audio recording or with a trained therapist. Guided imagery can be done in group or one-to-one sessions and can last an average of 20 to 30 minutes. In a typical guided imagery session:
- The therapist will use one of a variety of guided imagery techniques that will lead you through imagined experiences in your mind.
- Usually, the therapist will guide your imagination to places or situations that will make you feel peaceful, safe, relaxed, and secure.
- The therapist may use gentle background music to create a relaxed atmosphere and help you avoid distractions.
- You'll be asked to imagine something, such as a warm healing light on the area where the cancer was or images of your immune system attacking cancer cells. One popular exercise involves picturing tiny Pac-Man characters chasing and eating cancer cells.
- The therapist will describe sounds, smells, tastes, or other sensations that might accompany what you're imagining.
- While you focus on the imagined situation, you might start to experience sensations and feelings, such as warmth, lightness, contentment, or strength.
Guided imagery practitioner requirements
In the United States, there is no formal licensing process for guided imagery practitioners, although 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, such as nursing or psychotherapy. Training hours requirements can range from 90 to 200 hours.
You can find a qualified guided imagery practitioner through the Academy for Guided Imagery. The Academy trains and certifies health professionals in guided imagery, requires 150 hours of training, and has a website featuring a U.S. database of its certified practitioners.
Research on guided imagery in women with breast cancer
In studies of breast cancer patients, guided imagery has been shown to help the immune system and relieve anxiety, depression, and moodiness.
In a small study conducted at Oregon Health and Science University published in 2002, 25 women with stage I and II breast cancer were led through individual hypnotic-guided imagery sessions. During the sessions, the women were encouraged to imagine certain kinds of protective immune system cells — called natural killer cells — finding, destroying, and removing cancer cells. The initial session was taped. The women used the tapes to practice at home 3 times a week for 8 weeks.
Researchers measured the women's immune function and emotional state 3 times: before the program began, after the 8-week program, and 3 months after the program ended. After combining these results, researchers found that the women had much less depression and higher natural killer cell counts. While the women had more natural killer cells, the activity of those cells was not very different than it had been originally.
In a British study published in 1999, 96 women with newly diagnosed large or locally advanced breast cancer were split into 2 groups. Both groups received traditional cancer care including 6 cycles of chemotherapy, but one group also received relaxation training and guided imagery. The women in the guided imagery group experienced better quality of life and easier expression of emotions than the group receiving only the traditional care.
In a Korean study published in 2005, 30 breast cancer patients were given progressive muscle relaxation training (PMRT) and taught to use guided imagery during their 6 months of chemotherapy. Another 30 patients were treated with chemotherapy alone. The group practicing PMRT and guided imagery experienced less nausea and vomiting, and they were less anxious, depressed, and irritable than the group receiving chemotherapy alone. Six months after treatment ended, the PMRT and guided imagery group was still experiencing a better quality of life than the group that didn't receive training.
Important things to consider before trying guided imagery
Guided imagery is considered to be safe. It's best to practice guided imagery when you can devote your full concentration to it. For instance, don't try to practice guided imagery while driving or cooking.