We know now better than ever before that to keep our bodies healthy, we also need to care for our minds. Although often treated very separately, we now recognize that our physical health and emotional well-being are very much intertwined.

Living with poor health can impact our mood and also our outlook on life. People with long-term health conditions regularly report high levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.

However, how we’re feeling emotionally also has a significant effect on our physical health. When we’re low, worried and frustrated, it’s much harder to care for our bodies. Pain is harder to deal with, and when patients with poor mental health become physically ill, they’ve been found to have been shown to have slower recoveries and poorer outcomes.

In recent years public interest has grown in eastern methods of approaching mind and body. Mindfulness, in particular, a meditation-related practice that involves bringing your awareness to the present moment, has become widespread.

Research suggests that interventions such as these can be very helpful, not just because they can help people to feel more able to cope but that they are actually associated with improvements in bodily measures such as blood pressure, heart rate and response of the immune system.

Introducing Guided Imagery

One method that has been successfully applied to a range of different difficulties may be one you’ve never heard of: guided imagery.

The technique refers to the practice of training the ability to create an image in your mind. Often images will pop into our heads many times a day, without plan or warning. Our minds can generate the most vivid and imaginative of pictures, often of places and situations we’ve never actually been. Guided imagery harnesses this natural skill to improve wellbeing.

When beginning to practice guided imagery, typically a therapist, tutor or even an audio recording can be used to lead you through the steps. They will direct you to focus your mind on creating an image, imagining the impact on all of your senses.

At first, you may find yourself distracted or struggling to come up with much detail. However with continued practice and taking time to refocus your mind, the technique becomes easier. Those who practice regularly describe being able to generate ever more vivid mental images.

The theory behind guided imagery, informed by medical research, is that when we bring an image to minds, parts of our brains respond as if the object really is there.

Just bring to mind an image of a freshly baked chocolate cake, considering how it might look, smell and taste. You may find that your mouth actually starts to moisten, although the cake is only in your mind! Unconscious parts of our brain respond and send related signals to the rest of your body.

Uses of Guided Imagery

Bringing an image to mind can have a powerful effect on the body. If this technique is developed and used regularly, it has the potential to actively influence the way your body functions. The experience of generating mental imagery often also leads to feelings of ease and deep relaxation.

With practice, this can become a tool to be drawn on at times of stress and discomfort. Once learned, this skill can be drawn on in any situation.

Guided imagery has also been applied to a range of different issues with positive results.

1. Anxiety

When we feel anxious or fearful, our body’s survival instinct is activated. Also known as the ‘fight or flight response,’ the body responds to a perceived threat by getting ready to face up to it or run away. The heart beats faster to send more blood around the body, our breathing rate increases, pupils dilate, and we may sweat. Although useful, often these bodily changes can feel uncomfortable and sometimes actually generate more anxiety.

When guided imagery is used for anxiety, often it involves visualizing a calm space perhaps a favorite place where you feel safe. Other imagery may involve imagining tension leaving your body. The body responds to this imagery, and with practice, it’s possible to turn down the anxious response. This allows your body to relax and return to balance.

Sufferers of anxiety may be taught to bring to mind particular calming images when they feel signs of panic developing. Guided imagery has been found to be particularly useful for social anxiety.

2. Performance Anxiety

Worries about sex can lead to significant problems in the bedroom. Anxiety about sexual ability is often a key factor in difficulties such as erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, and difficulty reaching orgasm. Guided imagery techniques have been successfully applied to help overcome performance anxiety.

When applied to sexual anxieties, guided imagery practice often focuses on bringing to mind a positive sexual experience. In this image, sex is pleasurable and satisfying, and no difficulties occur.

With increasing practice and making the image more vivid and sensual, the mind begins to respond to this image as if it were a real sexual experience. When approaching sex with a partner, the mind has learned to view sex as free of stress and anxiety, and performance issues are far less likely to occur.

3. Cancer Treatment

Guided imagery has been successfully applied in cancer services. Patients are taught relaxation exercises, then encouraged to create an image in their minds of their cancer. They are then prompted to visualize their treatment, such as chemotherapy, and imagine this tackling their illness, leaving them cancer-free.

Research has found that regular practice of guided imagery led to patients feeling more in control of their condition. However, more strikingly, those completing the practice actually showed better health outcomes, with a higher survival rate than those receiving typical treatment.

Such dramatic results have not always been shown, but patients receiving the treatment often report a reduction in anxiety and feeling more comfortable about receiving chemotherapy.

4. Recovery from Surgery

Surgical wards of hospitals are another area where guided imagery has been put to work. Often delivered by nurses, patients recovering from surgery are encouraged to create an image in their mind of their injury. Following on from this they will create mental images of their body successfully healing.

In one group of patients recovering from knee surgery, those who completed a guided imagery and relaxation group program reported greater strength and lower pain.

When a group of patients having surgery to remove their gallbladder was taught guided imagery techniques, they showed quicker healing and also reduce levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.

Guided imagery is a relatively low-cost treatment which has the potential to reduce the amount of recovery time patients need, so improving their independence and wellbeing.

Bringing Guided Imagery Into Your Lifestyle

To fully gain the benefits of guided imagery, it requires some dedication and practice. Particularly when suffering from physical illness, it can be a tool used to care for yourself and potentially also enhances the healing process.

Often, starting with instruction from a professional is helpful, and many wellbeing centers may offer classes. Audio-recordings and online videos can be another way of gaining practice. Once the skill has been developed, it can be carried out with little need for materials or costs and can be used in a wide range of situations.