Guided imagery activates patients’ inner healing mechanisms, many benefits

Guided imagery activates a patient’s innate healing mechanisms, with the practitioner acting as the facilitator of their self-healing, according to Barbara Ford-Hammond, Hants, England-based hypnotherapist and coach accredited by Complementary Therapists Accredited Association.

This potent yet versatile and accessible modality can help with everything from pain management in chemotherapy to trauma to social anxiety, among many other physical and mental ailments, said Christine Gibson, MD, author, general physician, and trauma therapist in Calgary, Canada.

Gibson said she uses Interactive Guided Imagery (IGI), which emphasizes engaging with the images that arise in a patient’s unconscious. She believes IGI can be a powerful adjunct treatment tool for integrative practitioners of all kinds, as basic training is quick and relatively simple yet arms practitioners with an effective tool.

Ford-Hammond uses guided imagery both as a hypnotherapist and coach, depending on the client’s preference and needs. She specializes in treating patients with chronic pain, illness, and disability, often working with medical personnel, and helping patients prepare for or recover from procedures.

According to Gibson, a primary way guided imagery works is on the neurobiological level. “If you imagine doing something, the same areas in your brain light up as if you actually did it,” she said. “Imagination is really powerful, and we don't harness it nearly enough.”

Ford-Hammond creates custom meditations and hypnotherapy sessions that incorporate the client’s preferences, lifestyles, circumstances, relationships, and needs. Each session is different — she might take a more active role in guiding the patient in one session or have the client be the primary person building the image, while she asks questions, in another.

Similarly, Gibson partners with clients to build and engage with imagery, such as scenes, settings, and real or imagined beings, like family members or spiritual figures. She finds that evoking all the senses makes guided imagery more powerful.

Ford-Hammond said one patient who exemplifies how healing is powered by a patient’s own subconscious. The patient had shingles, resulting in debilitating nerve pain, but went to Ford-Hammond for help with getting off medications she had been prescribed to treat disease-related anxiety.

To create a guided scene, Ford-Hammond asked the patient about her preferred calming activities. “We chatted about how she and her husband like walking in the countryside,” she said. “Together, we created a scenario in which she imagined going inside herself. I said, ‘Imagine that you're in your body. Go for a walk and find the nerves that are still irritated, that are still hurting you, and see if you can find a way to heal them.”

At the end of the session, her client, who was pain-free and markedly more peaceful,  recounted what had happened. “She said that she had gone for a walk around her body and had gone along various nerves. As she did so, she kept seeing open gates, just as if she was walking through the countryside. She realized that when [she and her husband] go for walks in the countryside, they make sure to shut any gates. So, in this meditation, she shut all the gates as she went through them.”

The result was that by the end of the session, her nerve pain was gone, said Ford-Hammond, even though it wasn’t the original reason she’d come in. She added that the “gate theory” of pain, in which the spinal cord contains a neurobiological gate that allows pain to register in the brain, became widely accepted decades later, so the woman was ahead of her time.

Guided imagery’s ability to lower pain is well-supported. In a 2019 study in Complementary Therapies in Critical Practice, researchers found that Interactive Guided Imagery (IGI) combined with progressive muscle relaxation significantly lowered pain in terminal cancer patients.

Guided imagery has been shown to have physiological effects on the body, including activating the parasympathetic nervous system, said Gibson. That alone can facilitate healing via the immune response, though she said she also believes it can do more.

“If nothing else, invoking a state of calm and safety will allow [a patient’s] own immune system to work better,” she said. “We are self-healing organisms. But I also believe that you can help the body out by giving it a roadmap of what healing would look like.”

Guided imagery has also been shown to be highly beneficial for improving emotional states. In a 2022 study in Academic Consortium For Integrative Medicine and Health, group-delivered guided imagery for urban youth reduced the stress biomarker salivary cortisol and subjectively improved participants' moods and stress levels.

According to Gibson, practitioners can use guided imagery to help clients build internal safe spaces, create boundaries between themselves and others, and find nurturance and support from inner positive figures, all of which can improve emotional and mental well-being.

She uses Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART), a type of trauma processing using eye movements, like Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), to treat patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. ART heavily uses guided imagery, which is one big reason why it's effective, she said.

Guided imagery, she said, has the potential to help integrative practitioners in diverse disciplines enhance their treatment and better serve their patients.