Guided imagery is a practice whereby you use all five of your senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) to calm your mind and body. Research suggests that when practiced regularly, it can assist in alleviating anxiety, lift mood, help calm the natural ‘fight or flight’ response, reduce the frequency of some types of migraine headaches, and even decrease psychological distress among people going through cancer treatments.
Learning to use guided imagery to aid relaxation is easy and can be done by everyone.
What is guided imagery?
Guided imagery is more than just listening to relaxing sounds. It’s a learning process which involves listening to your internal voice, or the voice of someone else, relaxing your breathing and consciously directing the ability to imagine. The effect of vivid guided imagery sends a message to the emotional control centre of your brain, at which point the message to relax is passed along to your body’s endocrine, immune and autonomic nervous systems. These systems influence a wide range of bodily functions, including heart and breathing rates and blood pressure.
With the help of a guided imagery recording or just one’s own imagination, those who practice guided imagery get into a deeply relaxed state and see, feel and experience a relaxing scene often referred to as an ‘anchor’. It might be experiencing something in the natural world such as your favourite beach or forest or envisaging yourself eating a delicious meal. The point is to choose something that relaxes you and makes you feel positive. The more you practice guided imagery, the sooner most people are able to create the visual anchor, which in turn reduces the time taken to reach a deeply relaxed state.
A simple guided imagery exercise
Before you begin, here are some helpful tips:
- Some people like to use recordings of ‘white noise’, or the sounds of nature in the background when practicing guided imagery, while others find silence more beneficial. Choose whatever makes it easier for you to fully engage in the exercise.
- Set an alarm if you worry that you might fall asleep. Give yourself 20 minutes – it will go by much more quickly than you realise.
- Ask anyone in the house not to disturb you. Put a sign on the door to remind people that you’re taking some time out to relax.
- As you get more practice, you’ll be able to go into a relaxed state more quickly. You may also want to communicate with your subconscious mind, with the help of a tape you record for yourself or one of the many guided visualisation exercises you can find online.
Four steps to guided imagery
1. Get comfortable and loosen any clothing that restricts your breathing. If you are tired and think that lying down might put you to sleep, sit on a comfortable chair, or in a cross-legged position on a floor cushion.
3. Once you’re feeling fully relaxed, choose a scene you find safe and relaxing and vividly imagine it. You may want to remember a time and place when you felt wonderful and at peace (your happy place), or a vividly-described scene from a book you love, or the way you imagine a place you’ve always wanted to visit.
You want to experience the scene with all of your senses. For example, if you’ve chosen a beach setting, notice the colour of the water, sky and sand, the smell of the salty air, the taste of the sea spray, the sounds of the waves and the feel of the sand under your feet. Imagine what you’re wearing in fine detail and how your body feels. Are you carrying anything? Are there other people around you? Are there horses or dogs running along the beach? Is the air warm or cool? How does the sun feel on your face?
Stay with the scene for as long as you like. If you feel your mind drifting to problems or stressors, make a conscious effort to bring yourself back into the scene your imagining. It can help to tell yourself “I will think of that later – right now, I am focusing on this scene.”
4. When you’re ready to come back to reality, count back from twenty, and tell yourself that when you get to ‘one’, you’ll feel serene and alert, and enjoy the rest of your day. When you return, you’ll feel calmer and refreshed.