Three Principles of Guided Imagery

First Principle: The Mind-Body Connection

First of all, to the body, images created in the mind can be almost as real as actual, external events. The mind doesn’t quite get the difference. That’s why, when we read a recipe, we start to salivate. The mind is constructing images of the food — how it looks, tastes and smells; it might even be evoking the sounds of the food cooking or the feel of its texture as it’s being chewed. And all the while, the body is thinking “dinner is served”, and is responding by generating saliva and appetite.

The mind cues the body especially well if the images evoke sensory memory and fantasy sights, sounds, smells, feel and taste and when there is a strong emotional element involved. So, for instance, a strongly evocative image might be remembering the sound and pitch of Daddy’s smiling voice, telling you he’s proud of you; or the internal bristling of energy all through your body as you realize that you are about to triumph at something that you are home free golden.

These sensory images are the true language of the body, the only language it understands, immediately and without question.


Second Principle: The Altered State

Secondly, in the altered state, we’re capable of more rapid and intense healing, growth, learning and performance. We are even more intuitive and creative. In this ordinary but profoundly powerful, immersive mind-state, our brainwave activity and our biochemistry shift. Our moods and cognition change. We can do things we couldn’t in a normal, waking state, like lift a tree that has fallen on a child; write an extraordinary poem; replace our terror of a surgical procedure with a calming sense of safety and optimism; abate a life-threatening histamine response to a bee sting.

We wander in and out of altered states all through the day, as a matter of course. Sometimes it’s not a conscious choice, and we drive past our exit on the highway. At best, the altered state is a state of relaxed focus, a kind of calm but energized alertness, a highly functional form of focused reverie. Attention is concentrated on one thing or on a very narrow band of things.

As this happens, we find we have a heightened sensitivity to the object of our attention, and a decreased awareness of other things going on around us, things we would ordinarily notice. We are so engrossed, we lose track of time or don’t hear people talking to us. Or we are so focused on our tennis, we don’t realize we were playing on a broken ankle, and the pain isn’t perceived until the game is over.

The altered state is the power cell of guided imagery. When we consciously apply it, we have an awesome ally, a remarkable source of internal strength and skill.


Third Principle: Locus of Control

The third principle is often referred to in the medical literature as the “locus of control” factor. When we have a sense of being in control, that, in and of itself, is therapeutic, and can help us to feel better and do better.

Feeling in control is associated with higher optimism, self-esteem, and ability to tolerate pain, ambiguity and stress. Decades of research in ego psychology informs us that we feel better about ourselves and perform better when we have a sense of mastery over the environment. Conversely, a sense of helplessness lowers self-esteem, our ability to cope and our optimism about the future.

Because guided imagery is an entirely internally driven activity, and the user can decide when, where, how and even if it is applied, it has the salutary effect of helping us feel efficacy and mastery; that we have some control.

So, when you put all this together, you have a technique that generates an altered state, in which the mind is directed toward multi-sensory images that the body perceives as real. This is done exactly when, where and how the user wishes. And that’s why it’s so effective.

Your skill and efficiency will increase with practice. You’ll improve from whatever skill level you start with. Guided imagery functions in a way that is the opposite of addictive substances the more you use it, the less and less it will take for it to work.


Excerpted from Staying Well with Guided Imagery Naparstek, 1994