This article is from the Alternative Medicine Therapies guide.
Guided imagery is the conscious use of the imagination to create positive images ("healing visualizations") in order to bring about healthful changes in both the body and the mind. Creating mental images is nothing new for most people. Everyone has daydreams, perhaps of a set of new clothes or of winning the lottery. Guided imagery takes this natural process a step further. By working with a trained therapist, or using special audiotapes, you can learn to communicate more effectively with your unconscious mind, requesting that your body function in an optimal and healthy way.
The belief that the power of imagination can help people heal has ancient roots. Traditional folk healers known as shamans used guided imagery to treat ailments. In Eastern medicine, envisioning well-being has always been an important part of the therapeutic process. In Tibetan medicine in particular, creating a mental image of the healing god would improve the patient's chances for recovery. The ancient Greeks, including Aristotle and Hippocrates ("father of modern medicine") also had their patients use forms of imagery to help them heal.
It was not until the 1960s, however, that psychologists exploring the emerging field of biofeedback first began to appreciate the powers of the mind on the physical body. Through biofeedback, they could teach patients to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, or open lungs stricken with asthma. Then, in the 1970s, O. Carl Simonton, M.D., chief of Radiation Therapy at Travis Air Force base in Fairfield, California, and psychotherapist Stephanie Matthews-Simonson, devised a program--today known as the Simonton method--that utilized guided imagery to help his cancer patients. The patients pictured their white blood cells attacking their cancer cells (sometimes in scenes that resembled the popular video game "Pac-Man"). Simonton found that the more vivid the images his patients used (for example, ravenous sharks attacking feeble little fish), the better the process worked.
Since then, a good deal of research into mind-body connections has appeared in mainstream medical literature. And while many conventional physicians remain skeptical that the mind has an actual physical effect on the reversal of an illness, guided imagery (often conducted by psychiatrists or psychologists) is now used in many medical inpatient and outpatient programs throughout the world. Furthermore, many holistically oriented psychologists and other counselors routinely employ guided imagery for stress reduction, smoking cessation, weight reduction, immune stimulation, and the relief of both physical and emotional illness.