what is it?
Visualization is a way of harnessing your imagination in order to stimulate your natural self-healing processes, help you deal with difficult situations, achieve your goals and induce relaxation. Guided imagery is very similar — indeed the terms are often used synonymously — but is really more of a relaxation technique in which you use your own fantasies to picture yourself as calm and unstressed, unwinding on an idyllic beach or mountain pasture.
what it's supposed to do
How it might work is still unclear, but researchers believe it may create brainwave patterns that can affect body systems. Research using positron emission tomography (PET) showed that in subjects used imagery involving one of the senses, the relevant brain center was activated. Some recent research has shown that visualizing a muscle being exercised actually increases its strength.
Apart from personal development, visualization and guided imagery seem to be most beneficial for pain relief, allergies, heart conditions, anxiety and phobias, quality of life in cancer, auto-immune diseases, stress-related conditions including digestive and reproductive disorders.
Visualization and guided imagery can be practiced one-to-one or in a group, often as part of psychotherapy or hypnotherapy. As visualization is easier to do when one is mentally and physically free of tension, the session begins with a simple relaxation exercise, usually progressive muscle relaxation. The practitioner will then guide you through a visualization. What you imagine depends on your particular problem. Cancer patients, for example, might picture their natural killer cells as white knights on horseback massacring a rabble of cancer cells. People seeking pain relief might see themselves turning down the level of pain on an imaginary dial. If you are afraid of speaking in public, you might be encouraged to imagine yourself making a successful speech to an audience. You may be asked to repeat positive affirmations, such as 'I am in control', or 'I feel calm'.
Afterwards you will be advised to practice daily on your own, often with the help of an audiotape that you may have recorded yourself.
what's the evidence?
Researchers rarely focus on visualization or guided imagery alone, but include it with other stress-management techniques. For example, visualization or guided imagery used with relaxation was shown to reduce the incidence of recurrent colds and flu in children, according to an Australian study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 2001.
A 1999 study in Headache found that guided imagery could augment the effect of conventional medication in relieving chronic tension headaches. Women in the early stages of breast cancer derived more psychological benefits from visualization and relaxation together than from relaxation alone, according to a 1988 study in the British Medical Journal.
A number of studies indicate that visualization combined with a form of relaxation can improve the quality of life in cancer patients and, in other studies, affect breathing, gastrointestinal activity, heart-rate, blood pressure, sexual arousal and the release of brain chemicals. A 1999 study at the Imperial College, London, showed that herpes patients who pictured their antibodies attacking the virus produced more natural killer cells, were less anxious and experienced fewer recurrences.
Go to the safety first section of 'before you start' for some general precautions to take into account when considering a complementary therapy.
If you have a psychiatric condition, do not practice visualization without advice from your doctor.
how to find a practitioner
Books and audio tapes can be helpful, but if your problem is complicated or challenging, you would be well advised to consult a qualified hypnotherapist or psychotherapist who practices visualization. Neither profession is regulated by law, which means that anyone can practice as such, so make sure your therapist is a member of a recognized self-regulatory professional organization.
help and info
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