Imagine walking into your doctor's office with high blood pressure, anxiety or chronic pain from arthritis, and leaving with a prescription for guided imagery. You'd probably be skeptical, but this ancient natural therapy allows you to create mental pictures that aid healing by reducing stress and improving blood flow throughout the body.

Until quite recently, many doctors scoffed at this notion.

Now: Guided imagery has captured the attention of mainstream medicine as a result of two studies conducted at the renowned Cleveland Clinic. Researchers there found that people recovering from colon and open-heart surgeries experienced less anxiety and stress, needed half the typical amount of pain medication and were released two days earlier when they used guided-imagery tapes for 15 to 30 minutes twice a day, compared with when they didn't use these tapes.

Michael Samuels, MD, who has prescribed the technique for 25 years as an adjunct to cancer therapy and as a treatment for chronic pain, answers some common questions about guided imagery…

  • Will guided imagery ever gain widespread acceptance? It is happening already in most hospitals throughout the US. Guided imagery has been practiced on a limited basis in the US for approximately 30 years. Now, this technique is gaining popularity as a result of the Cleveland Clinic studies. Hospitals see the proof that it works from a practical perspective. It can save millions of dollars through the early release of patients from hospitals.

It also means less dependence on medication, which liberates sick people from the side effects of drugs. With hospitals embracing guided imagery, doctors' offices are sure to follow.

  • What is the physiological mechanism behind guided imagery? Any illness or surgery creates great stress even if people are not consciously aware of it. Guided imagery induces a state of relaxation, which releases the stress that aggravates the illness. At the same time, it improves blood flow, which allows a surge of healing antibodies and disease-fighting white blood cells to reach the site of illness.

Guided imagery enhances the immune system as a whole, which defends the body against viruses, bacteria and cancer cells. It can lower blood pressure and heart rate, both of which are useful in preventing and treating heart disease. It can decrease pain and alleviate the side effects of many drugs, including chemotherapy.

  • Why is guided imagery better than meditation? Both techniques induce relaxation, but guided imagery uses specific visualizations, which can improve the outcomes for people who have medical problems.
  • Are there any psychological benefits? Guided imagery profoundly affects attitude. It can increase feelings of confidence, control and power, and decrease hopelessness, depression and fear.
  • What should a person visualize during guided imagery? You can start by simply putting a picture in your mind. The more realistic the image, the greater your body's response will be

Picture the place you love best. Relax, close your eyes and fix it in your mind's eye. Add the senses to it. If you visualize the ocean, listen for the sound of the waves, hear the wind whistle in your ears. Feel the soft breeze caress your entire body, the mist brush against your face and the surf splash against your toes. Breathe slowly and deeply. Smell the salt air.

If you have a specific disease, such as cancer, create a mental picture of the disease—a big black blob perhaps—and visualize it being attacked by white blood cells.

  • Can anyone learn this technique? Yes. Anyone who has ever daydreamed or can recall fond memories can successfully use guided imagery to help treat physical and emotional problems. Athletes use it all the time. They picture their goal in their mind's eye.

Guided imagery is like learning to ride a bicycle. The first few times you try it, all you can do is think about what you are doing and how you are doing it. Then, all of a sudden, you realize you are doing it with ease without any thought to the process at all.

What tapes are helpful if I want to practice guided imagery on my own? Two good guided imagery tapes are Guided Imagery for Stressful Times by Diane Tusek, RN, director of the Guided Imagery Program at the Cleveland Clinic (440-944-9292, Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster by Peggy Huddleston (800-726-4173,

Easy Steps to Guided Imagery

For best results, practice this guided imagery I program for 15 to 30 minutes twice a day.

1. Find a comfortable place where you will not be disturbed. Sit or lie down with legs uncrossed, arms at your sides or resting on your abdomen. Close your eyes. Inhale slowly and deeply. Let your stomach rise on the inhale and fall on the exhale.

2. Shift your consciousness to your feet and allow them to relax. Concentrate on feelings of tingling, warmth and lightness. Next, relax your ankles. Let the feeling continue to the back of your legs and thighs. Let your mind float free. Feel the air moving through your nostrils, and concentrate on the body part you are relaxing.

3. Relax your pelvic area, your abdomen and your chest.

4. Relax your shoulders. Spread the feeling to your upper arms, lower arms and hands.

5. Let your neck relax. Loosen the big muscles that support the head. Now focus on your head. Relax your scalp; drop your jaw. Soften the muscles around your eyes and forehead.

6. Picture a place you love, such as the mountains or the ocean. Hear, smell and feel this place—if it's the ocean, hear the waves crashing, smell the fresh air, feel the mist touching your face. If you have an illness, such as cancer, you might picture white blood cells eating cancer cells.

7. Stay in this state for the remainder of your session. When you're finished, gently move your feet and count one...two...three.

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