Guided imagery

The technique of guided imagery focuses the power of the mind on some aspectof the workings of the body, in order to cause a real, positive physical response.

Once learned, this self-help technique is used to relieve stress, explore psychological conflicts, and manage pain. Used either in a medical setting or asan effective means of self-care, it can be applied to any situation in whichrelaxation, symptom relief, and a feeling of personal empowerment is useful.

Guided imagery has been described as a kind of "directed daydreaming." It isbased on the generally accepted idea that the mind can influence the body. For example, if you relax and think about a juicy, fresh lemon, then imagine slicing it and slowly raising the dripping, pale yellow sections to your waiting lips and sucking on them, chances are you will experience a standard physical response: you will salivate. Advocates of this technique argue that peoplepossess a remarkable degree of self-regulation that generally goes unknown,unexplored, and unused.

Thoughts or "images" can affect heart and breathing rate, as well as other involuntary functions such as hormone levels, gastrointestinal secretions, andbrain wave patterns. Advocates of guided imagery therefore stress the importance of the image (thought) which, they say, does not have to be real to havea actual, physical effect. Guided imagery takes the next step and asks why the mind can't be used to cause good things to happen within the body. Also called visualization, creative visualization, or creative imagery, this technique teaches how to consciously create positive images to accomplish a desired goal. One neurological explanation of what might go on in the brain during guided imagery is that the image or message is sent from the higher centers of the brain (cerebral cortex) to the lower or more primitive centers that regulate a person's involuntary functions, like breathing and heart rate. Whether or not these images are real, the lower part of the brain apparently respondsaccordingly as long as there is no contradictory information.

In a typical guided imagery session, the patient or client is placed in a relaxed state by the verbal guidance of the practitioner. This calm, receptive state is deepened through breathing exercises. This allows the patient to givereal focus and direction to his or her imagination. Once truly deep relaxation is achieved, the practitioner encourages the patient to choose a safe place, a very personal, truly serene site that may or may not actually exist, inwhich the patient feels perfect emotional security. It is at this point thatthe practitioner begins to work on the particular goal of therapy, whether itis to reduce stress or anxiety, manage the constant pain of a chronic condition, or assist in the healing process. Following several successful sessionswith a practitioner, patients are usually able to use the technique on theirown, often using written instructions or special tapes.

Guided imagery should not be used in place of conventional medicine or surgery in cases of a serious disease or condition. It is not recommended for psychotic patients who often cannot distinguish the difference between suggested images and reality. The only risk in guided imagery would be in viewing it asa cure-all rather than as an complement to conventional medicine.

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