Patients and medical professionals often agree that there is a strong connection between the body and the mind, and expanding the awareness of the body and mind connection may enhance one’s own healing and coping strategies. Relaxation and guided imagery work within the mind/body connection to help heal the body. Studies have shown that the use of such imagery can help to improve pain, mood, and sleep in chronically ill patients. Imagework enables patients to experience personal integration and bring about insights and changes which allow for healing to naturally flow through the patient.
Imagery is the act of using one’s own mind and imagination to create images that will have the intentional and intended effect on your own body and life. Although everybody has the ability to use imagery to heal, it first became popular and researched in the cancer population. Researchers discovered that patients who created their own healing imagery did much better overall in terms of survival and coping with their illness and were more able to deal with treatments and life in general.
Imagery can be thought of as an activity for your own well-being. For example, focusing on the disease or illness in and of itself has its own imagery which is usually thought of as being negative. If a negative image exists, it should be counteracted with a positive image. It is, therefore, important to work with the image to change it so that it becomes a helping and healing tool. This supports the notion that thoughts dictate a physical response, which again can be positive or negative.
Thoughts, feelings, sensations, and beliefs are easily accessed through imagework and allow for our inner images to develop. Imagework allows for access to symbolic and metaphorical information which has proven to be a vehicle for change. It also imposes nothing and takes its lead entirely from the own person’s experiences.
Visualization, on the other hand, is one-sided in that it focuses on only one picture. While visualization is essentially having a scene or picture in your mind and focusing on it, imagery is deeper than this; it begins with focusing on a scene or picture but includes all the senses (i.e. smell, taste, touch) to really experience the image.
Our body does make a physiological change based solely on our imagination. Rather, using all five senses to experience the image allows one insight into their own body and their methods of experiencing things, such as pain or fatigue. The use of the senses in imagery further allows a person to respond differently to experiences of pain and fatigue. In essence, imagery is tapping into the imagination and using all our senses to reach a particular goal, such as relaxation or a reduction of stress.
In order to relax and prepare to use imagery, it is important to focus on one’s breath. (Deep breathing is an important foundation for all relaxation, meditation, and imagery work). There are several types of imagery, including the body scan and guided imagery.
In essence, the body scan is a visualization of the body that focuses in on any tension in the body and releases the tension that is felt. Most people at any point can tell where they are feeling tension in their body. The body scan is used to get in touch with the physical body by using a mental process to identify areas that may have tension or pain and learning how to work with the tension or pain to get rid of it. Guided imagery is when someone guides your thoughts and formation of images. It is important during guided imagery to be aware of your body and breathing.
During this SLE Workshop, Gina Kearney, Nurse Practioner at the Integrative Care Center, guided us through four short relaxation exercises that allowed us to better understand the saying “a healthy mind equals a healthy body.” In essence, we need to alter our minds to alter how our bodies respond to stress and learn that we need a way to deal with stress so that it does not affect our body and will allow us to reduce symptoms of anxiety and tension. The first imagery exercise had a direct physiological effect on our body by allowing us to feel tightness in our jaws and salivate after we were guided through an exercise of imagining the taste of a fresh cut lemon and drinking its juice from a glass. The key here was to show how such a simple imagery exercise can produce a noticeable reaction in the body.
The second exercise was a body scan which taught us how to get in touch with our physical body; again, we began with some breath work of closing our eyes and taking deep breaths while being aware of the path our breath takes through our body and how it expands and empties our lungs. Ms. Kearney slowly made us aware - by guiding our breathing - of every part of our body, from our feet to our abdomen to our fingertips, and at each point we could release the tension through our breath.
The next imagery exercise led by Ms. Kearney was titled “Fall Colors,” and it combined the use of the breath with images of changing colors of leaves in the fall. During this guided imagery, we imagined and focused on a tree with vibrant fall colors that washed over our bodies and made us feel warm and relaxed. The colors of the tree began to change with the seasons while our tension changed and transitioned colors as well.
The last exercise really focused on wellness and what that means to us, feels like to us, smells like to us, and so on. This exercise brought us to our special place of deep concentration, peacefulness and security. It was a place where we felt deeply relaxed and connected to the natural healing qualities of our special place, and which supported and nourished our vitality and movement towards greater wellness. We imagined an image of us enjoying wellness and concentrated on what we thought wellness looked like and the qualities we perceive wellness has.
Many people often use the words healing and curing interchangeably; however, they can be distinctively different. A cure implies something that comes from an external process and relates to cause and effect. In addition, a cure suggests the cessation of symptoms and a return to normality. In contrast, healing is a deeper process and is internal; it comes from within a person. Healing refers to a change in the emotional, psychological, or spiritual level inside the healed person. Healing may not result in the remission of a disease but does have the ability to facilitate a process of transformation in the person. However, the most significant difference between healing and curing may be that the ability to heal is always there while the ability to cure may not be. Imagery focuses on what it means to heal and less on what it means to cure, while recognizing that anything is always possible with positive and focused intention.
Learn more about the SLE Workshop, a free support and education group held monthly for people with lupus and their families/friends.
Learn more about the Integrative Care Center, which brings together conventional medical and therapeutic approaches with complementary therapies to promote wellness and enhance the long-term mobility and health of patients with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases.
Summary by Jennie Salomon, MSW Intern