Guided imagery is a relaxation technique that involves dwelling on a positive mental image or scene. It is a tool that psychotherapists use, but a person can also teach it to themselves and use it at any time.

This technique is sometimes called visualization, or guided meditation. There are many benefits to using guided imagery, such as reducing stress or improving a person’s sense of well-being.

People intentionally visualize peaceful scenarios or images. While one person might choose to visualize a pleasant scene, some individuals use other means, such as picturing white blood cells fighting illness and imagining the desired outcome.

Keep reading to learn more about the benefits and techniques of guided imagery, as well as a step-by-step guide on how to do it.

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Guided imagery is a relaxation technique. People who try guided imagery might picture events, scenes, or other things that will cause feelings of relaxation and calm.

Relaxation techniques are generally safe for healthy people to use. The aim of relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery, is to stimulate the body’s natural relaxation response. This response might include the following physiological changes:

  • slower breathing
  • lower blood pressure
  • reduced heart rate

A few studies suggest the intervention may have the following benefits:

Relieves pain

Guided imagery can help distract someone from pain.

For example, arthritis and other rheumatoid diseases (AORD) typically involve pain and inflammation in the joints. Due to the side effects of drug treatment, many people with AORD might try psychosocial strategies, such as guided imagery to ease their pain. Some research suggests that guided imagery is effective in managing pain in people with AORD-related health conditions.

Alleviates stress

Guided imagery may help relieve chronic stress, a problem that can have harmful effects on the brain and the body.

Research looking into the effect of guided imagery on 35 pregnant teenagers, found a reduction in short- or long-term stress. This supports the use of guided imagery for stress management in some people.

Another research study examining the effect of guided imagery on 111 teenagers, found that guided imagery delivered in a group format reduces levels of cortisol in saliva and feelings of stress. Chronic stress may cause a slight increase in the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. In contrast, the intervention did not decrease levels of a salivary enzyme called amylase, which increases after encountering a stressor.

More research is necessary to determine the effect of imagery on stress.

Reduces anxiety

Spending time in nature can reduce anxiety, but this might not always be accessible for everyone. Being mindful of this, a research study explored the effect of nature-based guided imagery on 48 participants, with moderate levels of anxiety. After comparing nature-based with non-nature-based guided imagery, they found results that both interventions can reduce anxiety. However, the nature-based variety was more effective.

Helps with quitting smoking

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Research has found that incorporating guided imagery interventions to quitlines would be practical. This approach may also reach a wider audience.

Quitlines refer to telephone counseling for people that want to stop smoking. Guided imagery for smoking cessation may focus on getting people to cope with their cravings and help them maintain their motivation.

More research into the value of guided imagery for the purpose of smoking cessation would be helpful.

Decreases depression symptoms

Intrusive negative mental images may be an important factor in the onset and continuance of depression. This raises the question of whether positive imagery may help, however, there is limited research suggesting that it might.

One clinical trial study evaluated the effect of guided imagery on 80 participants undergoing hemodialysis. People on hemodialysis commonly have anxiety and depression. They found that the level of anxiety and depression were lower in people who had received the guided imagery intervention, than the people who had not.

Improves quality of sleep

As an example, older adults facing surgery frequently experience poor sleep. Research into the effect of guided imagery and relaxation techniques on 90 older adults undergoing abdominal surgery, suggests that guided imagery was effective in improving sleep quality.

Another research study looking into the effect of a 30–minute guided imagery recording on people in a progressive care unit, found that the intervention did help relieve their insomnia.

The following are examples of guided imagery techniques:

  • imagining a pleasant scene in a peaceful location to soothe anxiety or relieve stress
  • imagining white blood cells fighting illness, such as an infection or cancer
  • imagining a successful performance or outcome, such as in an athletic event or quitting smoking

A counselor or an audiotape can direct a person in these techniques. Alternatively, someone’s own thoughts can direct them.

A person may follow the steps below to try guided imagery:

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable place.
  2. Close the eyes.
  3. Take a few deep breaths so the body can start relaxing.
  4. Visualize a peaceful, calm setting, such as, a garden, lake, or somewhere by the sea.
  5. Picture the scene and add more details. Explore the scene with all other senses, for example, imagine birds chirping, the scent of flowers, and the warmth of the sun.
  6. Linger in the scene for a few minutes while trying to savor the calmness and sense of relaxation. A person can choose to stay in the scene for as long as they need to rejuvenate.
  7. Open the eyes and stretch gently to reenter the present. People should remember that they can return to the scene whenever.

The following are a few tips to help beginners:

  • Choose a quiet place where there will be no interruptions.
  • Turn off cell phones and TVs.
  • When imagining a scene, try to engage the senses of vision, hearing, smell, and touch.
  • A person may wish to shop around to choose a guided imagery tape to lead them through the process.
  • Do not rush through the process.

Guided imagery is a relaxation technique that people may use to reduce stress and can increase their well-being.

It usually involves imagining peaceful scenes, events, or objects. Guided imagery should help stimulate the body’s natural relaxation response.

There are many benefits to incorporating guided imagery to stressful situations or in general life. Guided imagery can be easy to do. It starts with taking a few deep breaths to relax and then follows with the technique of choice.