What is Guided Imagery?

Guided imagery has been described as a kind of "directed daydreaming." It is based on the generally accepted idea that the mind can influence the body. For example, if you relax and think about a juicy, fresh lemon, then imagine slicing it and slowly raising the dripping, pale yellow sections to your waiting lips and sucking on them, chances are you will experience a standard physic­al response: you will salivate. Advocates of this technique argue that people possess a remarkable degree of self-regulation that generally goes unknown, unexplored, and unused.

So guided imagery is a method of using your imagination to help you cope better with stress, anxiety, cravings, life...the term "imagery" refers to the symbols and pictures that make up your thoughts memories, dreams, even your feelings.  The rationale behind guided imagery is that your thoughts give rise to your emotions, which in turn greatly affect your well-being.  Visualizing positive images regarding your life can improve your ability to handle stress and even make you feel better physically.  Imagining yourself in a safe place can help you to feel calm.  The technique is amazingly useful for treating conditions that are caused or aggravated by stress, such as depression, anxiety or addictions.  Athletes and actors frequently use guided visualization to improve their performance.

Thoughts or "images" can affect heart and breathing rate, as well as other involuntary functions such as hormone levels, gastrointestinal secretions, and brain wave patterns. Advocates of guided imagery therefore stress the importance of the image (thought) which, they say, does not have to be real to have a actual, physical effect. Guided imagery takes the next step and asks why the mind can't be used to cause good things to happen within the body. Also called visualization, creative visualization, or creative imagery, this technique teaches how to consciously create positive images to accomplish a desired goal. One neurological explanation of what might go on in the brain during guided imagery is that the image or message is sent from the higher centers of the brain (cerebral cortex) to the lower or more primitive centers that regulate a person's involuntary functions, like breathing and heart rate. Whether or not these images are real, the lower part of the brain apparently responds accordingly as long as there is no contradictory information.

What does a guided imagery session involve?

In a typical guided imagery session, the client is placed in a relaxed state by the verbal guidance of the practitioner. This calm, receptive state is deepened through breathing exercises. This allows the patient to give real focus and direction to his or her imagination. Once truly deep relaxation is achieved, the practitioner encourages the patient to choose a safe place, a very personal, truly serene site that may or may not actually exist, in which the patient feels perfect emotional security. It is at this point that the practitioner begins to work on the particular goal of therapy, whether it is to reduce stress or anxiety, manage the constant cravings of an addiction, release trauma, or assist in a physical healing process.

Guided Imagery from World of Health. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation

How Does Guided Imagery Work?

 When you're worried about something, your mind is full of thoughts of danger, and your nervous system prepares you to meet that danger by initiating the fight, flight, freeze response.  Your levels of stress hormones shoot up, your breathing and heart rate accelerate, your muscles tense, and you end up tired and nervous, rather than calm and rested.  Studies show that envisioning positive images can help you disarm this stress response before it gets going.  It can help you feel in control and better able to cope with pain, fear, cravings, life...As an example, smoking induces a bodily reaction similar to other kinds of stress; increased blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension.  A 2005 study found that guided imagery helped smokers stop smoking and remain abstinent over a 24 month period.

What Does Successful Therapy Look Like?

I just finish therapy with a client in her mid-20’s.  She loves her job, found an amazing apartment for a reasonable price walking distance from her office, and has started dating an amazing guy who shares her quirky hobbies.  I asked her if she thought, a year ago, that she would be this happy now.  With amazement, she said no.  She had started therapy with me because her former boyfriend had broken up with her, and she could not stop crying – and she had to go to work and support herself, yet was in no shape to be around people.  Sound familiar?

So what happened in therapy during our year together?  What made her therapy successful while others get no relief from their emotional symptoms?  How can you achieve successful therapy too?  Well...

Can You Connect With Your Therapist?

First, choosing a therapist who you feel connected to is more important than anything else.  Can you tell you therapist what happened to you and accurately hear back from them what you were feeling, perhaps even hearing back some of your thought processes which created your situation?  Do you feel like your therapist “gets you?” 

And, how do they respond to you?  Are they warm, kind, curious? Or do you feel like you’re sitting with a judgmental parent who makes you feel stupid or embarrassed?

Do You Like Your Therapist's Style?

Second, does your therapist’s style of therapy help or annoy you?  Clients who need to tell their story lose their train of thought if bombarded with questions for clarification.  Clients who are searching for answers lose heart if their therapist never shares their thoughts.  Clients who bare their souls week after week may feel vulnerable when they realize they know nothing at all about their therapist.  Do you want therapy that is all one way like doctor-patient, or are you looking for a partner who works with you for your benefit?

I like using “life work” in between client session.  Life work, rather than homework, because the activities clients do in between sessions are designed to help change the rest of their life ;-) whereas homework is what children do in school.  I treat my adult clients like adults.  For instance, some of my clients fear being criticized.  I usually ask them to smile at strangers on the street or in stores and see what kind of reaction they get.  Most are pleasantly surprised that they get smiles in return.  This helps reduce their fear of new situations and people and is a first step in building self-confidence and self-esteem.  Some clients enjoy reading so I recommend books I think with complement their therapy with me.  Some clients like watching movies which reflect their current situation so that they can see from the outside, how others handle themselves.


Third, are you “up” for therapy?  Are you ready to look at yourself and perhaps let go of guilt or shame which you don’t deserve?  Are you able to recognize toxic relationships (even if it’s family) and let them go so that you may heal?  Are you ready to own your own behavior which is making you unhappy?  A non-judgmental, encouraging, patient therapist relationship takes the sting out of self-examination.

You Are Worth The Time And Financial Commitment To Heal (I think you are - OF COURSE YOU ARE!)

Finally, are you willing to make the financial commitment to see therapy through to the end?  Most talk therapy for individuals takes between three and five years to see the dramatic changes my clients achieve in 18 months with guided imagery.  Most people feel better after four months and think they are done, only to have set-backs and return to therapy in worse shape than when they initially started.  Are you ready to finish what you start?  Have you found a therapist who is willing to work with you within your budget – they can be found.

Successful therapy is life changing therapy.   Let me show you.  Please call 714-743-5612 or TXT, and ask for Dr. Mickey.


Contact Dr. Mickey

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Guided IMAGERY for healing addiction counseling trauma THERAPY

Dr. Mickey Wilson, LMFT, Newport Beach, CA 714.743.5612  



1. What is Intrapersonal Guided Imagery (Guided Imagery)?

           Guided Imagery is like a directed daydream or it is sometimes called, a guided meditation.  It is usually set to soothing, relaxing music.  Although Guided Imagery has been called a type of "visualization" or "mental imagery", these descriptions convey misunderstandings about Guided Imagery.  Guided imagery involves all of the senses, which allows the person to use messages or symbols from the mind, body and spirit to find solutions.   This is a gentle, nonthreatening counseling technique that offers powerful results.  Your deepest strengths and motivations can be revealed, your body's own healing abilities can be understood and used, and you can find faster and more lasting relief from your symptoms. 

2.  How is Guided Imagery different from Hypnotherapy?

            Guided Imagery, is a light meditative state, offered as an invitation to have an experience unique to you. Hypnosis deals primarily with behavior modification with specific instructions in a command style experience.  Guided imagery is more  free flowing, affording new information and insight from the client, not the counselor.

3. What's the difference between Guided Imagery and Psychotherapy?

            Psychotherapy is “talk therapy” which relies heavily on the conscious mind to  reveal insights into solutions to your conflicts.  Guided Imagery, on the other hand, uses a light meditation in its sessions which allows you to access and reveal your unconscious solutions to problems.  While the Guided Imagery counselor and the client do talk during the imageries, the Guided Imagery counselor is trained to ask questions to the client that will lead to deeper and more meaningful information, allowing  you to feel symptom relief more quickly. 

4. Is Guided Imagery dangerous?

            No.  Guided Imagery is completely safe.  There are no medications used, there is no “laying of hands”, and you are in a completely safe environment.  The only caveat to this would be if the client has low blood pressure, because during the meditative state your blood pressure will drop to a “sleep” state.  In the initial assessment, the counselors will check on this.

5. Is there anybody who should not use Guided Imagery?

            There has been no evidence reported that would indicate that certain people should not use Guided Imagery.

6. Is Guided Imagery "Mind Control"?

            No.  The symbolic images that are created in your unconscious during the imageries are spontaneous.  You will hear the Guided Imagery counselor continually encourage you to let anything happen, and stress the importance of changing nothing during the imagery.   One of the purposes of Guided Imagery is to gain “unfiltered” information. You will also hear the Guided Imagery counselor tell you repeatedly that there is nothing “right” or “wrong” in an imagery – all information is valuable.    

7. How long can the benefits of Guided Imagery actually last?

             The benefits can last forever.  Guided Imagery can change how you experience your past hurts, unresolved conflicts and trauma.  If the client continues to use the principles learned in Guided Imagery for future problems, then the benefits of Guided Imagery will remain unchanged.  One of the techniques that is taught to you to reinforce the healing benefits of Guided Imagery is the introduction of an “Alpha Trigger”.  An Alpha Trigger allows you to return to the symptom relief experienced during the Guided Imagery session by using a simple gesture such as touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth, or putting your thumb and two fingers together.  

8. Does Guided Imagery always work?

             Not for everybody.  As with all treatments for healing, some people will respond better to one treatment than another.

 9. How much will I remember when I wake up? Will I forget everything that went on?

             You will remember everything.  In a Guided Imagery meditative state, you are still aware of your surroundings and your feelings. 

             No, you will not forget anything that happened during the imagery.  Because the mind does not know what is real or imagined, the images you produce in your imagery are “real” to the unconscious mind.

10. Will I lose control when I'm under Guided Imagery?

             No.  You will not lose control at all.  You will be fully aware of everything that is happening. 

11. Can somebody's mind be too strong for Guided Imagery to work?

             Some people experience a little difficulty in the beginning just relaxing, so their ability to access their unconscious imagination is hindered.  This usually resolves itself by the second session of Guided Imagery.

12. Can't I do this myself? Why do I need to see a Guided Imagery counselor or have sessions?

            The personal one-on-one experience provided by a qualified Guided Imagery counselor cannot be replaced with a CD or a book.  While these forms of learning about Guided Imagery are valuable tools to help you, personal sessions offer a much deeper dimension to your experience.  Your insights can be revealed and your questions answered immediately.  Our sessions normally run anywhere from 1-1/2 to 2 hours.  Remember, your imageries are mostly “symbolic” because your conscious filter is no longer being used, and you are now using the symbolic messages of your unconscious.  For instance, rather than your mother appearing in your imagery, in your imagination, she may come to you in the form of a lamb or a rabbit or a bear.  A qualified Guided Imagery counselor’s expert knowledge and training will assist you in sorting out the choices of meanings to the symbolism in your imageries.

13. How many sessions will it take and how much will it cost?

            Each individual is unique and while some may experience significant relief in 3 sessions, others may take a year.  We encourage a minimum of 3 sessions to begin.  The longest any client has used guided imagery in my practice has been for 18 months, however, such clients usually have had a severe traumatic childhood, and thus many separate issues to resolve.

14. How soon will I feel the benefits?

            Many people feel the benefits after the first Guided Imagery session.  Most clients get an amazing night's sleep after the first session.  They report friends and family notice a difference in them after three sessions, and clients themselves say they feel very different after the sixths session.

15. What is Guided Imagery used for?

             Guided Imagery can be used by individuals, couples and families for a variety of situations.  Relaxation, addictions, depression, anxiety, pain relief, post traumatic stress, unresolved conflicts, grief, a serious medical diagnosis and sleep disorders are just a few areas that guided imagery has been scientifically proven to be successful.

16. Can I use Guided Imagery to resolve conflicts in my personal relationships with others?

         Yes.  Conflict in your personal relationships can actually be a signal to you that there is unresolved conflicts going on inside of you.  Through Counseling and Guided Imagery, you are able to recognize, heal and transform those “hidden” conflicts.  The healing that you will feel from this transformation will help you nurture yourself, and by nurturing yourself, you are then able to nurture your personal relationships. 

17. What if I can't wake up?

             Because you are in a daydream state of consciousness, and you are completely aware of your surroundings, your ability to “wake up” would never be an issue.


Medical Research On Guided Imagery Improving Mental Health

             The world-renowned Mayo Clinic describes Guided Imagery as “…a learning process to listen to someone’s voice, relax the breathing and consciously direct the ability to imagine.  The effect of guided vivid imagery sends a message to the emotional control center of the brain.  From there, the message is passed along to the body’s endocrine, immune and autonomic nervous systems.  These systems influence a wide range of bodily functions, including heart, breathing rates and blood pressure.  The Mayo Clinic goes on to state that Guided Imagery provides the following benefits to clients:

Reduces the negative side effects of cancer treatments.
Reduces pre-surgery fear and anxiety, post surgery need for prolonged pain medications, and allowed clients to leave the hospital more quickly than those who had not used Guided Imagery.
Improves the client’s ability to manage stress.
Aids the client’s ability to reduce the frequency and severity of migraine headaches just as effectively as taking preventative medications.

            The US Veterans Administration as well as the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health researched guided imagery’s usefulness in treating posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD.)  They reported significant improvements in the reduction of nightmare frequency and intensity, increased positive mood states, improved sense of self and others and improved cognitive and emotional functioning.

 Noted Guided Imagery Therapists, Charles D. Leviton, Ed.D. and Patti Leviton, M.A., teach us that “The value of imagery is that imagery can diagnose a problem, provide options for change, and even promote healing and personal empowerment.  Its primary purpose is to allow the body to relax, healing the physical and emotional aspects of self.”

We discover from Health Journeys Magazine the Three Principles of Guided Imagery, which are:

The Mind Body Connection - Images are events to the body.

To the body, images created in the mind can be almost as real as actual events. 

The Meditative State - The power of the meditative state

In a meditative, relaxed state, we are capable of a more rapid and intense emotional and physical healing, and intuitive insight.

The Locus of Control - The importance of feeling in charge

When we have a sense of being in control, and have available to us a simple technique that we can use whenever, wherever and however we wish, we support our sense of wellness, self sufficiency, and self-esteem.

 The Cancer Librarians Section of the Medical Librarian Association states that Guided Imagery “…is considered a complimentary therapy that works well with traditional treatments.  Guided Imagery can reduce stress, anxiety, enhance personal awareness, and improve psychological coping skills and improve their quality of life with a positive mental attitude.” 

The Cleveland Clinic
states, “Clinical studies have shown that anxiety can intensify pain, prolong recovery time and lower the immune system.  Guided Imagery can bring about the state of mind and body most conducive to healing.”  This article goes on to state the benefits of guided imagery:

1.      Reduce stress and anxiety

2.      Decrease pain and narcotic consumption

3.      Enhance sleep

4.      Increase client’s satisfaction and quality of life

Researchers at such prestigious sites as Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, Massachusetts General Hospital, Yale, and Michigan State University have all done studies on the effectiveness of guided imagery.  Their topics ranged from treating canker sores, to treating depression, to mental and physical pain, and cancer.  All concluded that guided imagery significantly improved the overall quality of life for the participants, by reducing symptoms such as pain, improving their immune response which improved their recovery rate and shortened the length of time of their illness, and improved their self-esteem.

             Psychology Suite 101 reports that “if you’re looking for a way to ease chronic pain, speed the healing process, or reduce anxiety and stress, consider guided imagery.  It’s an alternative therapy that’s noninvasive and drug-free.”   The publication explains that guided imagery “sends direct, positive messages to the emotional control center of the brain.  Those messages then travel to your immune system and autonomic nervous system, which affects your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rates…You let positive hormones flood your body, and you concentrate on keeping that positive energy strong.  Your body can’t differentiate between reality and thoughts…you imagine positive events – and your body responds in healthy ways.” 

             Imagery is at the center of relaxation techniques designed to release brain chemicals that act as your body’s natural brain tranquilizers, lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels.  Researchers find that these techniques work for headaches, chronic pain, high blood pressure, and spastic colon.


 Medical Research on Guided Imagery Enhancing Medical Treatment Outcome

 ·        Dartmouth Medicine reports “Dr. William Nugent, a distinguished cardiovascular surgeon calls his discovery of guided imagery “an epiphany”.  Guided imagery incorporates the power of the mind to help the body heal, maintain health or relax.  It aims to forge a balance between mind, body, and spirit.  Proponents say that tapping into the mind-body connection can strengthen the immune system, reduce anxiety, ease pain, and improve sleep.  The magazine summarized that guided imagery is increasingly accepted in mainstream medicine. 

·        Two studies affirming its value have been conducted at Harvard teaching hospitals.  And a Blue Shield of California study found that guided imagery increased patient satisfaction and cut costs by $2,000 per patient.

 ·        Hartford Hospital reports that “in addition to inducing a relaxation response and reducing chronic pain, guided imagery has been effective in many areas for the mind, body, and spirit by lowering cholesterol, reducing blood pressure and lessening the adverse effects of chemotherapy, etc.  Guided imagery can be used to reacquaint patients with their healthy side, give them back a measure of control, enhance their immunologic response to stress, reduce side effects of treatment and diminish anxiety and fear.  For persons with cancer, guided imagery has been found to reduce or arrest the side effects of nausea and vomiting, create a relaxation response, affect the immune system, and assist in the management of anxiety, pain and terminal illness.”

 ·        Studies by the University of Pittsburgh compared biofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, guided imagery, hypnosis, tai chi, qi gong, and yoga for their effectiveness in treating pain and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis.  Guided Imagery showed significant reduction in pain and mobility difficulties after 12 weeks, as reported in Pain Management Nursing.

I wish to acknowledge the following publications used in the compilation of this fact sheet:  Dartmouth Medicine, Vital Signs, Winter, 2005.  Health Journeys.  Mayo Clinic – Enhance Healing Through Guided Imagery, January 2, 2008.  Hartford Hospital at Charles D. Leviton, Ed.D and Patti Leviton, “Inner Peace Outward Power,” 2007.   Cleveland Clinic Guided Imagery Fact Sheet, 2008.  Cancer Librarians Section, Medical Library Association, 2002