Health Library

Categories > Cancer > Living with cancer

Picture this: Guided imagery eases both mind and body

When you plan a vacation, do you ever imagine yourself on a glistening beach…at a cool, clear lake…in an exciting new city? If so, you are well on your way to mastering the practice of guided imagery.

Guided imagery is a mind-body technique aimed at easing stress and controlling pain. The technique is based on the theory that the mind can affect body function. Imagery as a healing tool has been around since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. In more recent years, Western medical providers have been looking at guided imagery as a way to help people with cancer deal with the effects of the disease and its treatments.

Relax and imagine

Therapeutic guided imagery is intended to allow a person with cancer to mentally focus and relax to alleviate anxiety, discomfort or pain. If you decide to try a guided imagery session, it will work like this: A practitioner trained in the technique will guide you to a state of deep relaxation through a series of exercises. You may be asked to imagine yourself in a calm and tranquil setting, perhaps even that beach you’ve been hoping to visit. You’ll be encouraged to use all five senses in building a mental image.

The next steps can vary. The practitioner may ask you to visualize the physical site of your disorder and imagine that it’s healthy and working properly, or he or she may suggest you imagine your entire body as healthy, strong and free from distress.

What’s key is the active role you play in the process: You choose the images, and as a result, you feel more in control of your body. Don’t give up if, after your first session, you don’t feel an increased sense of well-being. Just like any task, the more you practice, the better you become at it. You can also practice guided imagery on your own, using a book, an audiotape or even a transcript or tape of your formal sessions.

Complementing tradition

Guided imagery, considered a form of complementary medicine, and other mind-body exercises have won support from several respected organizations. The National Institutes of Health recognizes the use of relaxation in treating chronic pain, although it doesn’t endorse any one technique. And the American Cancer Society acknowledges the potential in complementary treatments.

Not all medical doctors agree on guided imagery’s usefulness. Some believe it helps calm the anxiety that often accompanies serious illness, while others aren’t yet convinced. In any case, there’s no scientific evidence the technique helps heal any form of cancer or other disease. However, many with cancer have found the practice to be a helpful complementary therapy, used to enhance conventional medical treatment, not replace it.

If you’re thinking of trying guided imagery, talk with your doctor or nurse to be sure it won’t interfere with your current treatment. Your healthcare providers may also be able to refer you to a licensed therapist with the right guided imagery training, skill and experience. And be sure to check with your insurer to find out whether guided imagery is covered under your health plan.