For years the practice was marginalized as fringy and woo-woo, the province of ardent New Age types. But little by little, this low-tech approach to healing has begun to seep into the medical mainstream. Dozens of top-notch hospitals, including the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, and New York City's Columbia University Medical Center, now make imagery sessions or recordings available to patients. Even the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs, a notably sober institution, has begun to use the technique to help veterans recover from post-traumatic stress disorder. All told, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than six million Americans have tried out guided imagery.
A major attraction of imagery is its ability to help us figure out why we got sick in the first place—which in turn can offer important clues for healing, says David Bresler, PhD, a clinical health psychologist and president of the Los Angeles-based Academy for Guided Imagery, the field's foremost training and certification institute. "When you rely only on pills and procedures, you just pave over symptoms—and shoot the messenger," he says. "Guided imagery listens to the messenger." For example, if you suffer from nagging back pain, these conversations with your inner adviser can help you find out whether buried anger or anxiety might be contributing to your pain. Imagery exercises can then guide you toward constructive ways of coping with those emotions that may lessen—or even eliminate—your back pain.
How can such a noninvasive healing approach possibly wield measurable effects on so many physiological systems? "The key is the powerful link between our minds and our bodies," says Martin Rossman, MD, director of the Collaborative Medicine Center in Greenbrae, California, author of Guided Imagery for Self-Healing, and cofounder, with Bresler, of the Academy for Guided Imagery. By connecting us deeply to our senses and emotions, he says, imagery activates our autonomic nervous system, the central command post deep in the brain that regulates basic body functions.
If you're skeptical about the power of the mind-body connection, Rossman suggests taking a few deep, relaxing breaths, then picturing yourself holding a juicy yellow lemon in your hand. Now visualize cutting that lemon in half and squeezing the juice into a glass, raising the glass to your lips, and taking a healthy swig. Let the lemon juice linger in your mouth, taste its sharp sourness, and swallow. Did you salivate? Did you pucker your lips or make a cringing face? If you did, says Rossman, "it's because your imagination has an enormous capacity to affect your body. But too often," he observes, "we use that capacity for ill instead of for good. Most of us have had the experience of worrying ourselves into headaches or back pain or stomach problems. Think about it: If you can worry yourself sick, why can't you also imagine yourself back into health?"