Believe it or not, guided imagery, or simply imagery, has been used for centuries as a medical therapy. Evidence shows Tibetan monks began using meditation as early as the 13th century, imagining Buddha curing disease. Others believe that this imagery technique has been used for even longer, going back possibly to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Today, guided imagery is an accepted form of complementary and alternative medicine and used in conjunction with traditional treatments by clinics, hospitals and health care providers around the world.
The History of Guided Imagery
In 1985, an alternative health advocate and pioneer in guided imagery named Jeanne Achterberg published Imagery in Healing. This influential book explores the systematic use of imagery and the positive impact it can have on the course of illness and its ability to help patients cope with pain. The book brought together modern research with the practice of early healers with her claim that imagery is the oldest and most powerful form of healing in the world. This book is now a classic in the alternative medicine field.
Another early advocate of guided imagery was Leslie Davenport, who founded the Humanities Program at Marin General Hospital in the late 1980’s. Davenport’s book, “Healing and Transformation Through Self-Guided Imagery” discusses tantric yoga, a practice that influenced Buddhism and Hinduism, which encouraged followers to visualize a sacred image with the belief that gods speak to human beings through imagery.
Meanwhile, Dr. Martin Rossman, who co-founded the Academy of Guided Imagery, published “Guided Imagery for Self-Healing: An Essential Resource.” This book explains that ancient Greeks used guided imagery in their culture and viewed imagination as an organ.
Guided Imagery and Music
Many people trace the use of guided imagery in medicine to Helen Bonny (1921-2010), a music therapist who explored the way music effects the mind and how it may be used to expand consciousness for therapeutic purposes. In the 1970’s, she joined with consciousness researchers who sought treatment for patients with serious illnesses like cancer using psychedelic and psychotropic drugs.
Through her work, music came to be seen as an important element of this research to help patients explore their inner mental stat, selecting and sequencing music to maximize the therapeutic effect. She eventually developed a process called the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), which is psychotherapy based on music and a trained facilitator.
Her method continually changes today and it’s been used to treat individuals and groups in health care and clinical settings. It’s been found effective for stress-related, physical, emotional and addiction disorders.
Imagery Breaks into Modern Medicine
For much of the latter 20th century, many doctors continued to view imagery as quack science, with no place in real medicine. A number of pioneers in the field changed this perception, however, with research that later backed it up.
The concept of imagery therapy was popularized in modern times with the best-selling book Getting Well Again (1979), which described the experience of the Carl and Stephanie Simonton as they treated cancer patients using imagery and various other forms of therapy. In the book, they profiled what they call the average “cancer personality,” and how the reaction to stress can contribute to the onset and progression of cancer. According to the Simontons, self-awareness and positive expectations contribute greatly to survival and they described techniques to learn relaxation, manage pain and develop a positive attitude through visualization.
In these early days from the 1980’s to the 1990’s, most imagery experts taught people to actually visualize what was happening to their body, which is very different from the guided imagery we use today. Patients were often asked to visualize their white blood cells conquering cancer cells, imagine a Pac-Man eating up the cancer or visualize the tumor shrinking.
Unfortunately, not everyone finds this type of visualization easy, which led to the development of imagery that engages all senses, allowing you to imagine emotions, smells, tastes, sounds and feelings.
Early History of Guided Imagery Research
For the most part, general research into guided imagery and visualization did not find any correlation to imagery actually improving the condition itself. Instead, researchers found that guided imagery reduces the side effects of many conditions and their treatments, such as the nausea, fatigue, anxiety, pain and stress of cancer treatments, while also improving an individual’s ability to cope, improve quality of life and instil motivation and confidence.
46 studies conducted between 1968 and 1998 found that guided imagery can help to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, pain and many chemotherapy side effects while also reducing blood pressure.
2000 and Beyond
Over the last 13 years or so, hospitals have tripled their adoption rates of guided imagery programs, as well as massage and Healing Touch. The American Cancer Society also now considers it a useful treatment to help cancer patients cope with the condition.
Beginning around 2008, research into this form of therapy began to increase with the use of modern brain scans and blood assays. Numerous studies were then published demonstrating that imagery can change immune activity on the cellular level, much like meditation and hypnosis.
Guided imagery has certainly come a long way from its practice in ancient times through a long period of disbelief to its current acceptance by medical professionals, organizations and hospitals. Thanks to the work of the early pioneers in the field, we know understand that imagery plays an important role in healing and well-being with wide-reaching benefits.