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Guided Imagery: A Prescription for Pain and Stress Relief

March 13, 2018

Guided imagery techniques can benefit your physical and emotional well-being. Here are a few ways to use guided imagery to relieve pain and stress.

By Gail Elliott Patricolo

Stress and chronic pain are two long-term issues that many people deal with on a daily basis. Both can be harmful to your body and take a toll on your sleep, digestion, mood, well-being and general health.

While modern medicine can help treat these conditions, research has shown evidence-based, complementary medicine like guided imagery also has benefits. In fact, nationally recognized institutions recommend non-opioid approaches to pain.

What is guided imagery?

There are two parts to the human mind: the conscious and subconscious.

Think of the conscious mind as the verbal mind, which can be the irritating “monkey mind” constantly chattering. The subconscious mind is quiet and can’t talk back.

Because they are connected to your nervous system, when your mind is chattering away, you can feel tense and your fight-or-flight response may kick in, which can intensify any stress or pain you are feeling.

Using guided imagery, a trained specialist helps elicit the relaxation response and then guides the person’s imagination in a way that positively affects his or her physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. This can be accomplished with an in-person session or a recording.

The secondary tenet of guided imagery includes breathing from the diaphragm, which helps the body relax.

Guided imagery is most beneficial when you’re relaxing, as you’re falling asleep or resting. Or, if you’re having a rough day, you can sit in a quiet area and listen as much as you can. After listening many times, you may not need the recording, and can create the visualizations yourself.

In addition to using guided imagery as a means of achieving peace of mind and relaxation, tangible benefits can also be seen in stress and pain relief.

Guided imagery for stress

Guided imagery is a great way to ward off the effects of stress. Best of all, it’s easy to do at home, at the office or in a quiet area where you can take a few minutes for yourself.

Listening to a guided imagery tool over and over gives you the ability to help yourself. We need tools we can draw on ourselves, so finding one that’s right for you is important. There are CDs, free apps like Insight Timer and websites you can use.

Guided imagery for pain

If you have chronic pain, you’re not alone.

According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, more than 1.5 billion people worldwide live with some sort of chronic pain.

Nagging, stabbing, aching and persistent, chronic pain costs as much as $650 billion annually in lost wages, cost of health care and lost productivity, according to research by health economists at Johns Hopkins University.

With chronic pain, your brain sends a message to the body to tighten when you feel pain. If you can quiet the rambunctious part of the brain, the pain response is diminished. Guided imagery helps train patients to connect with the quiet part of the mind and to coax out the relaxation response in the body to change the messages the brain sends.

In some forms of guided imagery, patients can listen to a recording that leads them on a mindful, peaceful journey. For example: You lie in a hammock, feeling comfortable and calm. Start to sense the warmth of the sun soaking into the part of your body that feels pain. Try to begin to feel the sunshine moving out into the adjoining tissue. It is softening this area, warming it, helping to release any tightness. Feel this warmth deep in the area of pain, and let the pain melt away.

Guided imagery can work on any kind of pain, and like anything, it is very individual. It also tends to work better on people who are receptive and motivated. To gain maximum benefit, research shows you need to practice for 30 days for guided imagery to become effective.

A case for mindfulness

Mindfulness is another inexpensive, accessible way to refocus and enjoy the moment.

The idea is to notice when your mind wanders off.

If you’re replaying situations of the past in your mind, you’re wandering off. When the mind gets into planning mode of rehearsing what hasn’t happened yet, it can cause a sense of anxiety.

The benefit of being aware of the present moment is you might notice a sense of being a little less stuck in the past, less anticipation about the future and you can be a little more accepting of things just the way they are right now.

Generally, the most common technique of practicing mindfulness is to be aware of the breath — breathing with awareness and noticing it.

It can be used as an anchor to the present moment because you can’t breathe in the past or the future. You’re only option is to breathe right now.

Gail Elliott Patricolo is the director of integrative medicine at Beaumont Health.

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