“Of all the strange things that Alice saw in her journey Through The Looking‑Glass, this was the one that she always remembered most clearly. Years afterward she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been yesterday—the mild blue eyes and kindly smile of the Knight—the setting sun gleaming through his hair, and shining on his armour in a blaze of light that quite dazzled her—the horse quietly moving about, with the reins hanging loose on his neck, cropping the grass at her feet—and the black shadows of the forest behind—all this she took in like a picture, as, watching the strange pair, and listening, in a half‑dream, to the melancholy music of the song”.—Lewis Carroll
Yes, Carroll captured the essence of the power of images perfectly. Even the way that Carroll describes Alice’s memory is in such a way that you—the reader— are able to visualize the knight, to become fully engulfed in the imagery taking place.
Visual imagery is so powerful and affects individuals on a profound level. Research reveals that what we view plays a role in our memory, influences what we purchase, how we behave, and how we react. Years may pass after the experience of viewing an image, yet the image may still retain the power to stay ever present with you as if the event had just occurred.
“We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in their place”. –Daniel J. Boorstin
Visual imagery is defined by the Medical Dictionary as creating a mental picture of an object, event, or action (1). In speaking to the importance and magnitude of visual imagery, 90% of information transferred to the brain is visual, and the brain processes visuals at 60,000 times the speed of text (2). Our brains are able to see an image and automatically deduce information from that picture without having to verbalize anything.
No wonder the movie industry has capitalized on the fact that humans love visual imagery. Recent statistics report that in 2016, the movie industry in the United States alone was worth $38 billion dollars and is only expected to keep rising (3). We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by images, and we as humans, are built to respond to these images.
(Image is from The Revenant. Not only is the landscape visually magnificent, the movie plot is one of hardship, triumph, and justice. A must see.)
While the movie industry has capitalized on the positive experiences often associated with viewing a movie, there is also a much darker side to visual images and how they affect us on a personal level, especially when we experience the event in real life.
When we experience firsthand or witness a terrifying, traumatic event, a mental health condition—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—can occur. We hear much about the harrowing events that soldiers experience and witness in combat, often developing PTSD, however, PTSD can occur to anyone after experiencing a traumatic event. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V states that PTSD symptoms can occur after a person has been exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence often through any of these means:
- through Direct exposure,
- Witnessing the trauma,
- Learning that a relative or close friend was exposed to a trauma, and or
- Indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma, usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, medics).
Symptoms of PTSD manifest themselves in the following way(s) as taken from the DSM V (4):
- Intrusive thoughts
- Emotional distress after exposure to traumatic reminders
- Physical reactivity after exposure to traumatic reminders
There are a multitude of events that can trigger PTSD symptoms or a full-blown diagnosis of PTSD, yet despite the unfortunate truth that a variety of events can cause trauma, there is power in knowing that guided imagery can be used to help heal a person that currently suffers from symptoms of PTSD and or trauma.
Guided imagery is defined by the Medical Dictionary as “An alternative medicine technique in which patients use their imagination to visualize improved health, or to ‘attack’ a disease, such as a tumor. Guided imagery may be utilized as complementary medicine in some oncology centers and other medical facilities” (5).
In the mental health world, guided imagery is typically led by a mental health professional in an individual or group session. Typically, there is a script that the therapist reads in which the client is asked to visualize various relaxing events. I used to lead a Relaxation group at a hospital where the sole purpose of the group was to provide guided imagery to increase relaxation which in turn decreased levels of stress and even pain in some instances.
Many studies have demonstrated the positive effects of using guided imagery that include but are not limited to: a decrease in anxiety symptoms, panic disorder, fear of flying, and a decreased blood pressure (6).
So what exactly are the pieces that go into guided imagery… and can you do this on your own?
There are multiple parts to guided imagery and each piece plays a powerful role in learning how to relax and visualize positive images to combat the stress and or anxiety that you may be experiencing. Guided imagery typically consists of three stages: relaxation, visualization, and positive suggestion (7). Through consciously shifting awareness and learning how to change breathing, your body naturally is able to become more relaxed, sending a message to your brain that there is no need to be in the fight of flight mode.
You can practice guided imagery on your own. There are a multitude of scripted relaxation CD’s that you can purchase and you can also read various scripts in order to practice. I encourage my clients to learn what situations relax them whether it’s going to the beach, or walking through a forest, every person has their own place that is associated with relaxation and these often work very well as go-to scenarios you can use for your relaxation practice.
Guided imagery becomes similar to mental rehearsal where your mind goes through the motions of ‘practicing’ whatever scenario you want to accomplish. You could mentally rehearse for a job interview, a difficult conversation with your partner, or any kind of situation that causes you anxiety. Think about the positive outcomes that you want to see happen and imagine what direction the conversation needs to go in order for you to achieve your desired outcome. You can rehearse your response to difficult questions so that you feel well-prepared and more confident.
Guided imagery may also coincide with progressive muscle relaxation, which is where you purposefully tense and untense various muscle groups in order to recognize where in your body you feel tense, and conversely, what it feels like when your muscles are relaxed. The overall goal/benefit of progressive muscle relaxation is to help you lower your overall stress and tension levels, and help you relax when you are feeling anxious (AnxietyBC).
To try a round of progressive muscle relaxation, take a look at this excellent activity and explanation offered by Anxiety BC:
Like our breath, the use of guided imagery is free once you become familiar with how to use it effectively. To get your practice started I encourage you to briefly practice now. I will lead you through a sample guided imagery experience with this script. I encourage you to really take your time with imagining this scenario that you’re about to read and assess how you feel. Guided imagery will only be effective if you slow down, immerse yourself in the image, and relax.
Here we go…
- Find a relaxing place where you can sit and will not be disturbed.
- Start by using your breath. Breathe in deeply in through your nose, out through your mouth for 3-5 breaths. Imagine with each breath that you are exhaling all of the stale, negative emotions you may have [stress, anxiety, irritability] and that they are leaving your body.
- Imagine that you are driving and have just pulled up and parked at a beach. You take note of how sunny and cloudless the sky is. The perfect shade of light blue, you begin to feel the stresses of the day start to slip away just as the sun is shining brightly.
- You gather your belongings and begin to walk up the sandy shore. Observe how the sand feels on your feet, how the sun feels on your skin.
- Take a moment. Breathe in deeply and exhale out through your mouth.
- Observe how the wind feels on your skin. It lightly blows your hair. You can smell the salty ocean with every breeze that blows your way.
- You set down your things and notice that already your mood has shifted. You feel lightweight and calm. Your breath continues. In through your nose and out through your mouth. No one is there to cause you pain. You feel safe and comfortable in this space.
- You walk out to the water. It’s cool to the touch and feels refreshing. Carefully you continue to walk forward, observing how the water feels on your skin, noticing that you feel renewed and revitalized with each step in that you take.
- At this vantage point, you are able to see the shore. You have left all of your worries back far far away. Right now, it’s just you and the ocean and it feels so good. So calming.
- You feel in control. You feel ready to go back to the beach. Your breathing is still slow and deliberate. In through your nose, out through your mouth.
- As you leave the water, something has shifted within you. You feel confident and calmed. You are aware of all of your senses—taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound.
- You stand at the shore for a moment, gazing out at the crystal blue turquoise water. You hear the light sound of seagulls flying overhead and notice how one dives down to the water searching for food.
- You smile. You are able to appreciate the goodness of the life cycle. You are able to appreciate the beauty in the world and the oneness that you feel with nature.
- Happily, you slowly and deliberately walk back to your place on the sand and lie down. Your breathing continues. In through your nose and out through your mouth. In through your nose and out through your mouth….
- Slowly you should begin to now bring yourself back to complete awareness. Try standing slowly, stretching your arms overhead, whatever feels good for you at this time.
Notice how your body feels. Do you sense any tenseness anywhere? How does your mind feel? Are you at a place of relaxation and appreciation of the experience that you have just had?
You have just made the first step in gaining control over negative emotions and using guided imagery to increase your relaxation skills. Congratulations! This is what a short guided imagery session with me would feel like. I may play a CD with waves, or light a coconut scented/beach candle to really enhance the experience of the guided imagery session-both of which you can do at home.
Remember that you can draw the above guided imagery steps out for as long as you want, truly savoring the experience or you can keep it to a 15-20 minute session. Try practicing at least once per day or every other day and examine the positive effects that come into your life and your increased ability to deal with negative emotions.
“Sometimes the cure for restlessness is rest”. –Colleen Wainwright
Start your ‘rest’ with guided imagery. The price is free and the effects are priceless, a win win situation in my book!
Wishing you a day full of guided imagery goodness and relaxation today and everyday,