Imagery, or visualization, is a relaxation technique that uses mental exercises to calm the mind and relieve anxiety and stress. Supporters of this practice claim that there is a mind-body relationship where the mind is able to influence the health and wellbeing of the body. The practice has been around as early as the 13th and 14th centuries where it is thought that Tibetan monks used imagery to help cure disease.
There are various visualization techniques available. Guided imagery promotes relaxation by refocusing attention on memories or dreams rather than concentrating on a stressful situation. The technique can be used to help people feel more comfortable about going through a particular experience.
During sessions, patients focus on a meaningful image and incorporate their senses to enhance the experience. For example, a patient may choose to visualize a serene and calming environment such as the beach. During visualization, the patient imagines the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells, or other sensations associated with the experience [i].
Guided visualization for cancer
The Simonton method is a type of guided imagery technique created in the 1970’s by the radiation oncologist, Dr. O. Carl Simonton, for cancer patients. The technique encourages patients to imagine their body fighting the cancer cells and winning the battle. The method focuses on how beliefs, attitudes, and psychological perspectives can affect one’s heath and overall wellbeing. The Simonton method is practiced alongside conventional cancer treatment [ii].
Benefits of guided imagery
Practitioners say that imagery has physiological effects on the body by decreasing heart rate and blood pressure, resulting in a reduction in anxiety. When practiced regularly, the relaxation response can lead to improvements in sleep and the ability to cope with stress.
Imagery has been used in conjunction with mainstream cancer treatment to help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. In addition, cancer patients claim that the practice can help with pain management and ease some of the side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea and vomiting. Although the practice does not directly reduce pain, it helps by relieving tense muscles and other variables that contribute to pain [i].
Clinical research on guided imagery
There is currently limited clinical research and mixed results on the role of guided imagery in cancer care. However, one study conducted on women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer who received guided imagery while undergoing radiation therapy found that participants reported reduced anxiety towards radiation and fears related to surgical pain and recurrence of disease [iii].
What to expect
Guided imagery therapy sessions can last anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. It can be performed with the help of a trained therapist or is easy enough to learn on your own. A safe practice for cancer patients, it may be a good option to try if you’re looking for alternative approaches to relieving stress and anxiety.
It is important that all patients consult their oncologist or healthcare provider before starting or undergoing any complementary therapy.