What is guided imagery?

Quick Answer
A therapy involving the use of imagined scenes and activities to influence the body.
Expert Answers
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Guided imagery has been used since ancient times by the Greeks and Egyptians. Normally, a person uses imagery many times each day when anticipating events or activities. Some of the imagery is negative and causes worrying. A person develops thoughts about who he or she is through mental imagery. Guided imagery channels this use of the mind to affect the body.

When initiating guided imagery, it helps to relax, because doing so makes the body more receptive to mental images. Some persons use guided imagery when they wake up in the morning and before they go to sleep at night. Guided imagery can be effective when practiced regularly, but it takes time to learn and to see its effects. Guided imagery should be practiced a minimum of twice per day.

Guided imagery is sometimes referred to as visualization or affirmations. Both visualization and affirmations apply the same principles as guided imagery.

Mechanism of Action

Guided imagery uses the mind/body connection to change the body or its functioning. The mind already has a great deal of control over the body, and this control can be increased by using guided imagery.

The brain does not “understand” words; rather it understands only pictures or images, and these mental images must be repeatedly reviewed. With enough repetition, the brain and unconscious mind will attempt to make these images real. Positive imagery can trigger the release of brain chemicals, such as serotonin and endorphins, which are natural tranquilizers.

Guided imagery is more effective if all of the senses are used in forming the images. For example, a runner imaging his or her performance in a race should imagine the smell of perspiration, feel the pain in the legs and chest, imagine the dryness of the mouth, see competitors through peripheral vision, see the finish line, feel sweat running down the neck, and hear feet beating the ground as he or she pulls ahead and crosses the finish line first. One can then imagine the joy of winning the race and receiving a trophy or medal.

Uses and Applications

Guided imagery assists in relaxing the body, controlling some body functions, and increasing the effectiveness of performance. It can be used to treat depression, anxiety, cancer, the side effects of chemotherapy, pain, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, insomnia, headaches, wounds, premenstrual syndrome, asthma, spastic colon, and low white-blood-cell counts.

Scientific Evidence

Much research has been conducted to determine the effectiveness of guided imagery. Many of the studies examined guided imagery as a CAM therapy for healing, reducing the side effects of drugs, or initiating personal change. In general, however, the effectiveness of guided imagery depends on the efforts of the individual person and cannot be controlled or measured accurately.

One study of women with breast cancer demonstrated such questionable results. The study, performed by the Oregon Health and Science University in 2002, looked at twenty-five women with either stage one or stage two breast cancer. They were taught guided imagery to see the natural killer cells of their immune system destroying the cancer cells. The initial session was taped; participants were asked to practice at home with the tape three times per week for eight weeks. Their immune function and emotional state were measured three times: before the study began, at the end of eight weeks, and three months after the study ended. Participants reported being less depressed. The measure of their immune system demonstrated higher levels of natural killer cells but no change in the physical effects of the killer cells.

Choosing a Practitioner

Guided imagery can be done without a practitioner. Audiotapes and CDs are available to provide guided imagery coaching. Good books describe the process and include scripts for guided imagery. A mental health counselor or a physician can provide coaching in guided imagery, and trained guided imagery counselors can be consulted.

Safety Issues

There are no known safety issues with guided imagery. However, intense worrying can have negative physical and emotional effects.


“Guided Imagery: Using Your Imagination.” In Stress Management for Life: A Research-Based Experiential Approach, edited by Michael Olpin and Margie Hesson. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2010.

Naparstek, Belleruth. Staying Well with Guided Imagery. New York: Grand Central, 1995.

Rossman, Martin L. Guided Imagery for Self-Healing. 2d ed. Tiburon, Calif.: H. J. Kramer/New World Library, 2000.