You can also tap into the power of your imagination with guided imagery, as you use all five senses to encourage your nervous system back into a state of focus and calm, no matter where you are, or what you’re doing.
Definition of Guided Imagery
Knowing how to practice with guided imagery — a technique you can do on your own — may be key for helping you cope with fatigue, nerves, performance, stress, and other inhibiting mental roadblocks.
More than one-quarter of adults report their stress levels are so high that they can’t function, leading to forgetfulness, and problems concentrating and making decisions, according to the American Psychological Association.
“Guided imagery is a mind-body practice that helps bring the body into a relaxation response,” Mary Jo Kreitzer, PhD, RN, the founder and director of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing and professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
It’s a relatively simple concept. Essentially, you visualize a calming scene, like waves lapping against the shore of a white sand beach, drawing on all five senses to imagine how it looks, sounds, feels, smells, and even tastes (like salty ocean air). In time — often, a matter of minutes or seconds — this can trigger the body’s relaxation response to move from a state of “fight or flight” to “rest and digest.” Once composed, you may experience tranquility and clear-mindedness to move forward in a better state of mind.
Among many applications, medical health professionals may use it with patients for stress management and pain relief as a way to tolerate procedures; meditation and yoga teachers may weave it into classes to help students foster focus; coaches and trainers may adopt it for athletes to improve performance; even some corporations may fuse it into employee get-togethers as a precursor to team-building exercises.
Common Questions & Answers
History of Guided Imagery
According to research, guided imagery has been used as a healing technique for centuries. “Guided imagery actually may have been one of the first human therapies if you look at the guided imagery aspects of prayer and ritual as used in shamanistic cultures,” says Martin L. Rossman, MD, an integrative medicine practitioner in Greenbrae, California, and founder of The Healing Mind.
Dr. Rossman is largely credited with bringing guided imagery to the forefront and increasing its popularity in the United States. According to Rossman, he learned about the technique from the writings of Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli, who created a therapeutic approach called psychosynthesis — a psychology of hope, according to The Institute of Psychosynthesis. “[He] wrote and taught extensively about using imagery therapeutically,” says Rossman who had already studied mind-body medicine for decades.
Together with UCLA psychologist David Bresler, PhD, Rossman cofounded the Academy for Guided Imagery in 1989, a postgraduate training academy that teaches health professionals the technique. “Our goal was to teach them to use guided imagery in psychotherapy, medical, and nursing settings to enhance the treatment and self-care skills of their patients,” he says.
How Guided Imagery Works
The body doesn’t differentiate whether mental images are real or imagined, explains Dr. Kreitzer: “The same parts of the brain light up as if the actual event was happening.”
That’s why the imagination is such a powerful tool, says Rossman. You can salivate on cue thinking about the mouth-puckering taste of a lemon, or let out a deep breath when you mentally transport yourself to a favorite place by a lake. (The opposite, like clenching, can happen if you think about something that brings you stress or anxiety.)
“We react to imagery quickly, physiologically and emotionally, which is why it’s so important to learn to use it on purpose instead of letting your untrained imagination run away with you,” he says.
Guided imagery can be used on your own or alongside a practitioner, depending on the reasons why you’re using it.
Types of Guided Imagery
There are a few different types of guided imagery that may be used, according to the Academy of Guided Imagery:
Guided imagery may be used to evoke a peaceful setting to reduce stress.
Guided imagery may be used to visualize healing in the body, such as cells attacking cancer, symptoms resolving (such as the pain of a headache being released), or changing poor health habits.
Guided imagery may be used to gain insight about symptoms, illnesses, or treatments.
Interactive Guided Imagery
This technique asks patients to use the images that come into their mind and interact with them as a basis for their healing, per the Academy of Guided Imagery. For example, they may imagine a problem being solved, says Rossman. An IGI practitioner will help guide this process.
Possible Health Benefits of Guided Imagery
Guided imagery can be a powerful calm-down tool. And, it’s something everyone can try to see if they find it helpful. “Guided imagery is accessible and inexpensive to try, and for some people, can be really beneficial,” says Kreitzer. Here are some ways using guided imagery may be beneficial to certain people and groups:
May Help Alleviate Mood Issues
“Guided imagery [may] help people manage anxiety and depression,” says Kreitzer. One study found that in a group of 48 participants, guided imagery effectively decreased symptoms of anxiety — and nature-based guided imagery was especially potent. The researchers noted (in their review of available research) that mental imagery targets both the physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety, and using guided imagery triggers a similar experience in the brain as if it was happening in real time, potentially lowering anxiety and therefore neutralizing or boosting negative moods.
May Assist in Trauma Work
Alongside therapy, one of the ways in which guided imagery may offer support in people with trauma-related concerns is to offer them a safe space to retreat to, says Michael P. Huttar, with the University of Houston–Clear Lake Counseling Services. This safe space, an imagined place they know and feel secure in, may make therapeutic work less scary and more accessible. It’s important to use guided imagery this way with a trained therapist.
May Decrease Stress and Improve Sleep
Just like other mindfulness techniques — taking a couple deep breaths, calling a friend, going for a walk — visualization through guided imagery can be one tool in your calm-down toolbox, says Huttar. You may use it to help fall asleep if you’re having trouble dozing off because you’re in a stressed-out thought spiral, or use it right when you wake up to set yourself up for success in your day.
According to a past systematic review, which included three guided imagery studies, the authors found the technique may indicate long-term benefits in people with sleep complaints, though more research is needed.
May Manage Concern and Fear Around Medical Procedures
If you’re nervous about needles, scared to go under anesthesia, or completely uncomfortable during chemotherapy due to the side effects, you can pop on headphones to listen to a guided imagery meditation or a member of the medical staff may guide you in calming visualizations.
Research found that cancer patients who listened to guided imagery meditations for 20 minutes per day for one week reported experiencing less severity of both the mental and physical side effects of chemotherapy. Another study found it can potentially play a role in mental wellness following other medical procedures.
Additionally, the effects of guided imagery have been studied (PDF) for same-day surgical patients, reviewed for cardiac-surgery patients, and researched for critically ill patients, and all authors found significant positive effects on patient pain, anxiety, and even in some cases reduced hospital length of stay, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Help You Achieve Your Goals
So, what do you want to do? Exercise more? Take up yoga? Get organized? You can use guided imagery to help give you the motivation to reach your goals, according to research, which found that visualization allowed people to “pre-experience rewarding and positive aspects of potential future activities.” Just remember: Think good thoughts and imagine success.
Guided Imagery Safety and Side Effects
Overall, guided imagery is safe for most everyone. “There are no known contraindications or known risks to using guided imagery,” says Kreitzer. “Guided imagery is a low-cost, low-risk approach that can have really great benefits,” she adds. Of course, you may find that the method is not for you, and that’s okay. Here are a couple of caveats to be aware of:
There is some indication in past research that guided imagery may create false memories in certain instances, like aversive early childhood events.
Also keep in mind that if you’re using guided imagery in trauma therapy, it’s possible that it may not create enough of a safe space for you. That’s why it’s important to use guided imagery in trauma work under the care of a qualified therapist or mental healthcare practitioner.
And if you’re using guided imagery for a specific medical reason, it’s important to note that this is designed as a supportive care technique, not as the only medical intervention. Always consult your physician to determine if the use of guided imagery is an appropriate complementary approach for your treatment plan.
Who Might Want to Try (and Avoid) Using Guided Imagery
If you’re looking for another relaxation and de-stressing technique, or want to incorporate meditative-based practices into your daily or weekly routine, guided imagery may be a wonderful technique to simmer down from a tough day, fall asleep at night, or kick-start your morning to set yourself up for success in the day ahead.
In addition, athletes and performers may benefit from guided imagery to boost their confidence and create mind-body connections that help them better execute their task at hand.
For people doing deeper psychological work, guided imagery may also serve as a support structure for trauma therapy. If you’re using guided imagery for a health reason, it can be used as an integrative approach along with conventional medicine, notes Kreitzer. (For instance, guided imagery can be an adjunct to taking pain medication.)
Tips for Getting Started With Guided Imagery Meditation
When you want to explore guided imagery, there are a few ways to start:
Look for audio recordings to download or search YouTube for online videos; you’ll find these from various sources, including universities and medical centers. These can be listened to whenever you need them, such as when waking up or before bed.
Try an App
A number of meditation apps, such as Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer, offer guided imagery sessions, making it easy to incorporate guided imagery into your established meditation practice. If you want to start a practice, guided imagery meditations may be a more accessible option to quiet the mind.
Learn How Yourself
If you’re particularly motivated, or know that this is something you want to learn and pursue, a book, like Rossman’s Guided Imagery for Self-Healing, can teach you the techniques to use on your own.
Ask Your Medical Center
Do they have practitioners on staff who use guided imagery for before, during, or after medical procedures? If you’re going through treatment for any number of health concerns, this may be an option they can provide to supplement your care regimen.
Seek Out a Mental Health Professional
If you’re interested in incorporating guided imagery for a mental health reason (in therapy, for trauma work, or to help soothe clinical anxiety or depression), seek out a therapist who is knowledgeable in the technique and who will incorporate it into your sessions, alongside therapeutic work and medication, if applicable.
What to Expect Before, During, and After a Guided Imagery Session
All guided imagery sessions will be different, depending on the practitioner, the individual, and the intentions of the practice. It’s always a good idea to try a range of options (like audio recordings or apps, and qualified healthcare professionals) to an approach that you feel like you connect with. Also, knowing what may happen ahead of time can set your expectations appropriately so you’re more likely to find success with the practice.
Here are a few tips to prepare:
If you are doing this in your home, find a cozy, quiet space free of distractions. If you’re in a medical setting, do what you need to do to get as comfortable as you can (such as asking for a blanket). Begin to take slow, deep breaths.
Find Your Place
“Often in a session, you’ll be invited to think about a place you enjoy that feels relaxing,” says Kreitzer. That may be a mountain, a beach, a forest, or even your grandma’s kitchen. Your imagination is limitless, and as long as this place invokes inner peace, there are no wrong answers.
Go On a Journey
You’ll be guided through that place in a very detailed way, tapping into all of your senses, including what you’re “seeing,” “feeling,” “smelling,” and “hearing.” Again, it’s not about right or wrong, so try not to overthink it. The important thing is to invoke all five sensory responses to transport yourself, via your imagination, to this peaceful place.
If you’re doing trauma work, the therapist will likely ask you to get extremely detailed with this calming place, perhaps having you write down details or rehearsing it, says Huttar. That will be paired with a safe space image. “When in a trauma narrative, we [may be able to help] calm people down by reintegrating their breathing and going back to this peaceful, imaginative space,” he says. (A resource video from the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine explains how this might work.)
Feel Your Body Relax
Because our mind doesn’t differentiate the real from the imagined, says Kreitzer, this comforting setting should provoke your body’s relaxation response, where your heart rate begins to slow, blood pressure decreases, and breathing slows.
Experience Less Stress Later
You’ll ideally likely leave the session feeling more relaxed, and regular practice may deliver longer-lasting benefits. “With practice, it [may] help reset your tension, stress, and anxiety levels,” says Rossman. If you’re doing guided imagery as part of therapy, the time it takes to see benefits varies depending on what you’re seeking treatment for, he adds.
What Does Guided Imagery Cost?
Guided imagery can be free if you’re following an online video. If you are doing guided imagery with a therapist, you will pay their fee for the session, which is different depending on practitioner, location, and if they offer sliding scales of payment or insurance covers these therapy sessions.
Resources We Love: Guided Imagery
Check out this website from Rossman for videos and more resources on how to reduce stress and address other health challenges using self-healing strategies, including guided imagery. You can subscribe to the monthly newsletter to keep these strategies fresh throughout the year.
Visit this for resources to deepen your understanding of the basics surrounding imagery and visualization. You’ll also find a directory for certified interactive guided imagery practitioners. Note, parts of this directory are out of date (though it’s a good place to start), so you’ll want to separately Google the practitioner you’re interested in and make sure they’re still in practice, and in your area. But, the directory also provides contact information, making it easy to reach out.
Search “guided imagery” on YouTube and you’ll come up with a variety of videos at your disposal, many from medical facilities. You can further refine your search to locate a video that addresses a specific issue, such as sleep, healing, and anxiety.
Established in 1991, Health Journeys is a multimedia publishing company that specializes in self-help audio recordings of guided experiences like meditation, imagery, relaxation, and yoga. Its audio library is chock-full of resources for all kinds of healing scenarios, including guided imagery for successful surgeries, and more. You can find its resources used in over 3,000 hospitals and health facilities, or order materials directly through the website.
In this episode of the Body of Wonder Podcast, hosts Andrew Weil, MD, and Victoria Maizes, MD, interview Belleruth Naparstek, a social worker and guided imagery pioneer. The episode covers the benefits of guided imagery for patients and how to use the mind to influence the body in health and disease.
Written by Rossman twenty years ago, the book is a must-have for learning exactly how to practice guided imagery on your own, how to evaluate your progress, and how to incorporate it into your healthcare routine.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Stress in America 2022. American Psychological Association. October 2022.
- What Is Psychosynthesis? The Institute of Psychosynthesis.
- AGI History. Academy of Guided Imagery.
- Krau SD. The Multiple Uses of Guided Imagery. Nursing Clinics of North America. December 2020.
- Can Guided Imagery Help Me? Academy of Guided Imagery.
- What Is IGI? Academy of Guided Imagery.
- Hemdon, P, Myers B, Kehn A, Henry S. False Memories for Highly Aversive Childhood Events: Effects of Guided Imagery and Group Influence. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice. 2014.
- Nguyen J, Brymer E. Nature-Based Guided Imagery as an Intervention for State Anxiety. Frontiers in Psychology. October 2, 2018.
- Mahdizadeh MJ, Tirgari B, Abadi O, Bahaadinbeigy K. Guided Imagery: Reducing Anxiety, Depression, and Selected Side Effects Associated With Chemotherapy. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. October 2019.
- Beizaee Y, Rajeh N, Heravi-Karimooi M, et al. The Effect of Guided Imagery on Anxiety, Depression and Vital Signs in Patients on Hemodialysis. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. November 2018.
- Renner F, Murphy FC, Ji JL, et al. Mental Imagery as a “Motivational Amplifier” to Promote Activities. Behaviour Research and Therapy. March 2019.
- Neuendorf R, Wahbeh H, Chamine I, et al. The Effects of Mind-Body Interventions on Sleep Quality: A Systematic Review. Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. June 2015.
- Guided Imagery in Heart Surgery and Other Procedures. Cleveland Clinic.
- Gonzales E, Ledesma R, McAllister D, et al. Effects of Guided Imagery on Postoperative Outcomes in Patients Undergoing Same-Day Surgical Procedures: A Randomized, Single-Blind Study [PDF]. AANA Journal. June 2010.
- Casida J, Lemanski S. An Evidence-Based Review on Guided Imagery Utilization in Adult Cardiac Surgery. Journal of Doctoral Nursing Practice. 2010.
- Hadjibalassi M, Lambrinou E, Papastavrou E, et al. The Effect of Guided Imagery on Physiological and Psychological Outcomes of Adult ICU Patients: A Systematic Literature Review and Methodological Implications. Australian Critical Care. March 2018.
- Two Simple Techniques That Can Help Trauma Patients Feel Safe. National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine