Using Guided Imagery to Heal

The evidence confirming the power of imagination is supported increasingly by science. But, in some ways, the most compelling case is made by the people who have tried it themselves. Mark Henry, 47, a sports psychologist from Lake Oswego, OR., started practicing visualization after being diagnosed with osteoarthritis in 2005. He uses guided imagery to reduce stress and ease the aches in his body.

“I breathe into the tension and bring awareness to the parts of my body that are in pain,” Henry says. Sometimes he imagines that he is flexible and soft, like a spaghetti noodle. His body responds by becoming more relaxed and comfortable. Henry believes that the practice, in combination with acupuncture and yoga, has improved his health and diminished the immediate need for a hip replacement.

Vitale himself has witnessed firsthand the physical impact that visualization and imagery can have. After suffering for weeks with stiffness and tension in his neck, Vitale was shocked when an X-ray revealed he had arthritis. But in that same picture he saw an opportunity for healing.

Instead of focusing on the diagnosis, Vitale visualized the X-ray as a chalkboard with a drawing of his neck. Then he simply erased the arthritis from the board and imagined feeling great. The stiffness was gone within six weeks, he says.

In speculating on the explanation behind this phenomenon, internationally known author and motivational speaker Denis Waitley, PhD, who also is quoted in The Secret, says, “The mind can’t distinguish between something that is imagined and something that really has happened. So why not preplay the desired result and shape it in your memory?”

Visualization, Waitley explains, is like a dress rehearsal for the mind. He has studied the process for more than 40 years, and has worked with astronauts and Olympians, including gymnast Mary Lou Retton and runner Carl Lewis.

Research supports this practice. Studies have shown that when athletes imagine themselves running the perfect race or performing at their peak level, their muscles twitch and their neuropathways fire as though they actually were competing, Waitley says. By the time they head out to the track, they’ve already run the perfect race so many times in their heads that their bodies simply take over.

Just as a runner can dream the perfect race into reality, a slew of studies conducted in the 1990s and later indicate that people who are suffering from pain also can use imagery to dream away some of their discomfort.