Imagery does more than tinker with our physiology. It can also connect us to desires, hopes, and creative solutions that are lodged in our unconscious minds. Rossman explains that when we merely "think about" a problem—whether it's trying to manage a physical symptom or get a grip on anxiety—we're operating out of the conscious part of the mind, which is big on logic and planning but can be pretty clueless about what we need to help ourselves. "Our unconscious minds are often much smarter and wiser than our conscious minds," says Rossman, "and guided imagery is a direct route to that unconscious wisdom."
For what it's worth, my initial experience with imagery excavated a piece of vital information that I didn't know I knew. When Woody suggested, "How about making your writing fun?" as he cavorted about, embodying merriment and joy in his bouncing blue being, all at once I got it. What I got—at some deep level that my thinking brain had never even come near—was that fun was the antidote to my anxiety. Not better deadline management, not writing faster or better. Fun was the ticket. As that insight seeped into my body, I actually felt my muscles begin to uncoil, my whole torso loosen and lighten. Within minutes, I was asleep.
Okay, you may say, but beating insomnia isn't all that earth-shattering—a whole raft of relaxation approaches are good at that. True enough, though I would argue that imagery gave me a twofer—not just better sleep but also the beginnings, at least, of a more lighthearted approach to life. Not long after my rendezvous with Woody, as I continued to labor over multiple writing projects, my husband, Dan, suggested that we take a brief, restorative Caribbean holiday. "No way!" I barked, conjuring up missed deadlines and frowning editors. But then I found myself asking: "What would Woody do?" Three weeks later, Dan and I were strolling down a seaside road in Jamaica, eating fresh pineapple with our fingers and contemplating an afternoon of serious sunbathing.
Guided imagery can handle far tougher problems. If you're facing surgery, imagery can help you experience less pain and recover faster. Provocative evidence comes from a recent study of 126 hysterectomy patients conducted by Blue Shield of California, one of the state's largest health insurers. Prior to surgery, approximately half the patients received a free guided imagery tape from Blue Shield entitled Successful Surgery, followed by a phone call from a nurse explaining the benefits of the recording and encouraging patients to try it out. The other half of the group received only standard presurgical patient instructions.
The results were dramatic: The women who had listened to the guided imagery tape averaged fully $2,000 less per person in hospital costs than did the women in the control group. According to Deborah Schwab, RN, the lead researcher on the study, the hefty savings could be traced to the guided imagery group's lessened need for medication following surgery, as well as their quicker release from the hospital. "The women who used imagery reported much less anxiety about their operation than the others," Schwab says. "And we know that the more anxious a patient is, the more potential there is for surgery complications." Schwab, who directs new product development for Blue Shield of California, is now busy fielding requests from hospitals and physician groups around the country who want help in setting up their own guided imagery programs.
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