By Paul Abraham, of www.headingonwards.com
Guided imagery is a stress management technique where you use your imagination to picture a person, place, or time that makes you feel relaxed, peaceful and happy.
Imagery is slightly different from other stress management techniques, in that it relies on the use of all of your senses.
For instance, in your imagination you hear the sound of birds chirping, you see the drops of dew on the grass, you feel the breeze on your skin, you smell the wildflowers, and you taste the cold drink.
In imagery, using all of your senses is what creates such a powerfully relaxing experience, and this is why it’s so useful in managing stress and coping with difficult situations.
There are several ways that you can use imagery to help you relax. For example, you could create mental pictures of stress flowing out of your body, or of your problems, your distractions, and your everyday concerns being folded away and stashed in a padlocked chest.
Some people are sceptical about the effectiveness of using imagery. However, research suggests that it can be incredibly effective in lowering your stress levels.
For instance, one study found that using stress management techniques alongside relaxation imagery, and even just using imagery alone, significantly reduced participants’ blood pressure, while another study, which researched the effectiveness of imagery on breast cancer patients, found similar benefits: patients who used imagery to cope with their disease experienced less stress, more vigour, and a higher quality of life than those who didn’t use the technique.
As well as these examples, many other studies have successfully used imagery to lower stress in patients suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, abuse, depression, and other conditions, including occupational stress.
Imagery is similar to visualisation in that you’re using your imagination for a specific purpose, however, visualisation is more focused on a definite outcome.
People use visualisation techniques to imagine completing goals or working through a situation with an exact outcome in mind. Both are useful, but guided imagery is more relevant for managing stress.
How to Use Guided Imagery
Step 1: Find a Quiet Place
If possible, find a quiet place to sit down. This could be a park bench, an empty room, or even your office. Close your eyes, and breathe slowly and deeply to calm down.
Step 2: Choose Your Setting
Once you feel relaxed, picture yourself in the most peaceful environment that you can imagine. This can be an imaginary place, or a memory of a place or time that has a special meaning to you.
The scene that you imagine is highly personal and should ideally be one that you feel emotionally drawn to. However, if you’re having trouble thinking of an image, consider using the following:
Relaxing on a sunny tropical beach, listening to the waves, and digging your toes into the sand.
Curling up in an armchair in a remote cabin, surrounded by mountains and snow, and relaxing in front of a fire with a cup of hot cocoa.
Going on a picnic with your family in your favourite secret spot.
Sitting by a waterfall deep in the forest, feeling the gentle moisture against your face, and listening to the birds.
It’s important to remember that imagery’s effectiveness relies on using all your senses.
For instance, don’t just imagine yourself in the remote mountain cabin. In your imagination, look around you. Pay attention to the rustic feel of the room. Feel the fire’s warmth against your skin, and inhale the musky, earthy scent of the wood’s smoke. Touch the cosy blanket, taste the sweet hot cup of coffee, and look out of the window at the birds finding food in the snow outside.
Experience the feeling of having nothing else to do but eat, read, and go walking in the crisp freshly fallen snow. Your goal is to immerse yourself fully in the scene: this includes what you can see, taste, touch, and smell, as well as how you feel.
The more details that you can include in your imagery, the more effective this technique will be. Keep in mind that when you first begin to use imagery, it might feel strange, and you may have difficulty immersing yourself fully in your imagined scene. With practice, this will get easier; your imagination will get stronger, and you’ll be able to enter a relaxed state more quickly.
Step 3: Relax
Stay in your relaxed scene for as long as you feel comfortable, or as long as your schedule allows. Continue breathing deeply, and try not to let any outside thoughts intrude.
When you’re ready to leave, sit quietly, and let your mind turn back to the situation at hand. You’ll now feel much more relaxed, in control, and ready to tackle your challenges.