Guided imagery is a mental technique that uses the power of imagination to bring about positive changes such as relaxation and better focus and performance.
Albert Einstein said that “Imagination is the most powerful creative force in the universe.”
Any time you look ahead to what may happen in the future or summon up memories of your past, you are creating a mental picture using your imagination.
For most of us, much of this “mental time travel” is in the form of worry and rumination.
And while these thoughts exist only in your mind, they can cause as much stress as a real-life event.
By using guided imagery, you can put your powerful imagination to work for you instead of against you.
Let’s take a look at exactly what guided imagery is and how you can use it to overcome stress, improve your health, and focus your mind to achieve your goals.
What Is Guided Imagery?
To understand what guided imagery is, let’s take this phrase apart and look at the meaning of each word.
Imagery, often called mental imagery, is the ability to picture or visualize something in your mind’s eye.
You can “see” a mental image of something that you’ve actually have seen with your eyes, but you can also use your imagination to “see” what you’ve never seen or does not even exist.
But imagery in this sense is not just visual.
You can use the power of your imagination to evoke a full multisensory experience that includes sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings.
Guided imagery, as the name implies, means that you are guided through this mental trip, often by an instructor or health care clinician.
This can be done either in person or via prerecorded guided visualizations.
This technique is also referred to guided visualization, guided imagery meditation, or visualization meditation.
Guided imagery is a mind-body technique that uses your power of visualization to achieve a desired outcome, usually for relaxation, health benefits, or performance enhancement.
A Typical Guided Imagery Meditation
If you’ve ever done self-hypnosis or meditation, you already have a good idea of what takes place during a guided visualization session.
Guided imagery is considered both a form of hypnosis and a style of meditation.
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While every session is different (depending on your goals), in general here’s what you can expect to take place.
First, you’ll be instructed to find a quiet place to sit comfortably and relax.
You’ll be told to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
Then your guide will talk you through a mental journey.
What happens next depends on your goals.
If your goal is stress reduction, you may be asked to visualize a safe and pleasant place like a forest or beach.
If you are seeking a specific health benefit, you may be led to visualize healing taking place.
If you are aiming to improve your golf swing, you will be guided to mentally perform the perfect swing in your mind’s eye.
Does Guided Imagery Actually Work?
You may be skeptical that your thoughts can actually change your body.
If you have doubts, I invite you to try this little experiment.
Think about a big juicy slice of lemon.
Picture it in your mind’s eye — not just the way it looks but the way it feels and smells.
Then imagine biting into it.
Virtually experience the tartness hitting your tongue and the way it makes your mouth pucker.
I’d be surprised if you didn’t notice your mouth start to water!
By merely thinking about a lemon, you started a chain of metabolic events.
During guided imagery your body releases hormones, neurotransmitters, and biochemicals to help your body rest, restore, and heal. (1)
Guided Imagery Uses
Guided imagery is most commonly used for reducing stress, mental and physical healing, changing behaviors, or achieving peak performance. (2)
Here are some real-life examples of mental imagery uses.
Guided Imagery in Health Care
Using mental imagery once was relegated to alternative or complementary medicine, but now has gone completely mainstream.
It’s been found to be so beneficial, it’s even covered by some insurance plans! (3)
Over 200 studies have proven its many health benefits. (4)
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According to the Cleveland Clinic, a renowned nonprofit academic medical center, guided imagery is beneficial for:
- enhanced immunity
- high blood pressure
- pain management
- stress management
University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center recommends using guided imagery along with conventional medical treatments to reduce stress, improve sleep, boost immune function, and ease pain.
The Center has a guided imagery library for cancer patients that’s available free to the public.
Guided Imagery for Performance Enhancement
Another popular use for guided imagery is personal development and performance enhancement.
Guided visualization can be used to release limiting thoughts and emotions, increase self-esteem, gain mental clarity, and meet both personal and business goals.
Some of the most successful people in the world use guided imagery.
It’s a particularly valuable training tool for many world-class athletes. (5)
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The most competitive Olympic teams now travel with an entourage of sports psychologists who use guided visualization and related mind-body tools such as meditation, self-hypnosis, and autogenic training to help athletes achieve peak performance.
Research reveals that mental rehearsing can be as effective as physical practice, and that doing both is most effective of all. (8)
One study of basketball players found that one hour of visualization equated to an amazing seven hours of physical activity! (9)
Getting Started with Guided Imagery
If you want to reduce stress or increase your focus, there are many sources for free guided imagery audio files.
I found quite a few on university websites which offer these as stress reduction services to their students.
Most of these are created under the guidance of mental health professionals.
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You can download free guided imagery MP3s here:
- Dartmouth College: relaxation downloads
- McMaster University: guided relaxation videos and a guided imagery script
- University of Houston: guided imagery and visualizations
- University of Iowa: guided relaxation and mindfulness meditations
As you might expect, not all of these free sessions are as “polished” as commercially produced versions.
I recommend visiting the website for Zen 12 where you can download free meditations in your choice of versions: brainwave entrainment or guided imagery meditations.
You can also find pre-written scripts or write your own then record it yourself.
The University of Illinois has created this guided imagery script you can use.
And lastly, if you are looking for serious results for a health condition or for serious performance enhancement, consider engaging the services of a trained guided imagery clinician.
You can find one in your area at Healthy.net.
Guided Imagery Tips
Here are some miscellaneous tips for getting the most out of your sessions.
Some guided imagery audios have background music or environmental sounds and some will be spoken voice alone.
Some will be a male voice, others a female voice.
Some will guide you through a walk in the woods, others a stroll on the beach.
If any visualization meditation makes you uncomfortable or annoyed, use another.
This needs to be a totally relaxing experience to work.
Guided Imagery Side Effects
During a session, you might notice that your muscles move or jerk. That’s completely normal.
Expect to feel a little groggy after a session, similar to waking up from a nap.
It’s not unusual to feel an emotion such as sadness, relief, or joy.
You might find yourself laughing, or crying, after a session.
That, in fact, is a good sign that guided imagery is working.
Guided Visualization Safety
Visualization is considered an extremely safe healing technique.
In fact it’s so safe that it can be used with children. (10)
But there are a few circumstances where guided imagery should not be attempted.
It should not be used with people who are out of touch with reality — those who are psychotic, delusional, hallucinating, or have dementia. (11)
You may try guided imagery once and feel like you didn’t get anything out of it.
But don’t give up after one session.
Just as with meditation (traditional meditation can take a long time to master) or any other mind-body technique, you’ll get more out of it with practice.
Guided Imagery: The Bottom Line
Your thoughts and imagination are powerful.
Positive thoughts can work for you just as surely as negative ones work against you.
Guided imagery is a proven, medically accepted way to use your thoughts to imagine your way to a healthy, happier, more productive you.