Guided imagery is a stress-reduction and relaxation technique that utilizes positive thought and images to minimize pain, reduce the heart rate and invigorate the body's healing mechanisms.
The practice of guided imagery is an ancient tradition with roots in many cultures and dating to the earliest days of mankind. The early Egyptians, Chinese, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and Christians all utilized guided imagery in some fashion, usually as both a spiritual and physical healing tool.
Leslie Davenport's book, "Healing and Transformation Through Self-Guided Imagery" discusses how tantric yoga, which influenced the dogma of both Hinduism and Buddhism, encouraged followers to visualize a sacred image, usually a deity that would help bring the visualization to fruition. The idea that gods speak to humans through images was part of Hindu theology.
But the human need to go inside the mind to find spiritual healing dates back even further. Tens of thousands of years ago, ancient man left us drawings on cave walls depicting part-animal, part-human shamans. Shamanism is the oldest tradition using visualized images for healing. The transcendental experience is a crucial part of shamanism, moving the imagination to a place of altered, yet clear, visualization.
In his book "Guided Imagery for Self-Healing: An Essential Resource," Dr. Martin Rossman, co-founder of the Academy for Guided Imagery, provides details on how Greeks in the time of Hippocrates implemented guided imagery as part of their culture. "The imagination was considered an organ, just like the liver or heart," says Rossman. "In the Greek model, reality was taken in through our senses, which subtracted its matter. What remained were images in the "psyche" (the soul), thought to be located in the heart. Judaic thinkers also sensed a connection between visualization and health. Early Jewish teachers encouraged the use of kavanab, a state of awareness where practitioners focus on images for desired healing.
The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches both recognize John Cassian as a saint. He built an Egyptian-style monastery in France where he taught a form of mysticism deeply rooted in divine imagery. According to his teachings, followers achieved union with God by filling their purified hearts with an image of Christ.
Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli all helped advance guided imagery as a technique within the modern medical field. In his groundbreaking paper "The Ego and the Id," first published in 1923, Freud stated "it is possible for thought-processes to become conscious through a reversion to visual residues. In many people, this seems to be a favorite method: thinking in pictures."
In 1969, German psychiatrist Hanscarl Leuner presented research on his form of visualization, guided alternative imagery, through lectures at Princeton University and publication in the American Journal of Psychotherapy. Leuner is now considered to be one of the fathers of modern guided imagery.
In the 21st century, guided imagery is accepted as a valid and important part of our health-care system. While earlier stereotypes may have placed it in the category of alternative medicine, today we see hospitals, universities, government, researchers and physicians largely support the technique as a tool for pain relief as well as prevention and treatment.
The Cleveland Clinic advises patients about to undergo medical or surgical procedures to "identify your self-talk, that is, what you are saying to yourself about the surgery or procedure you are going to have. It is important to identify negative self-talk and develop healthy, positive self-talk. This is a powerful way to take control of the way you are reacting to the sense of unknown about the procedure."
The Academy for Guided Imagery suggests that patients "invite an image to form that represents a particular medical symptom, and then initiate an imaginary dialogue with the image to ask why it's there, what it wants, what it needs, (and) where it's going."