Can Imagery Help Heal?

By Marilyn Landreth, M.A.

Does anxiety, depression, lack of social support, psychological distress, or a pessimistic outlook on life play a role in our ability or inability to deal with the effects of disease? Does the mind play a role in health or sickness?

This is a topic for a great deal of research and also heated debate. Psychoneuroimmunology is the long name for this type of research.

Learning to use relaxation techniques and imagery skills may help us all deal better with stress.

There are several promising clues coming from recent research. Drs. Cohen and Herbert, writing in Annual Reviews of Psychology, described the mechanism that explains how psychological factors might influence immunity and the immune system. They provided substantial evidence that psychological factors can influence indicators of immune status and function. In addition, they found links between stress and disease onset and progression, at least in cases of colds and flu.

Learning how to deal effectively with stress may play a part in improving the quality of life in patients with breast cancer, according to Christine M. Bryla, R.N., M.S.N., and reported in Oncology Nursing Forum. She evaluated relaxation/breathing exercises, or a combination of relaxation and imagery, as tools for ‘patients undergoing radiation. Patients who were trained in both relaxation and imagery were more relaxed than those trained just in relaxation’ she reported.

Also from Oncology Nursing Forum, Kathryn Ann Caudell, Ph.D, R.N, explored the relationship of behavioral interventions on reducing or improving quality of life in patients with cancer. She was evaluating interventions such as relaxation training and guided imagery, along with others. She concluded, “A multi-component, long-term program of behavioral interventions may provide the greatest and lasting interventions.”

Where does all this research seem to be leading? It looks as though there are inexpensive techniques that can help people deal better with the stress and strains of life and disease. These techniques are not meant to replace medical treatment, but to be used in conjunction with treatment and, in some instances, these mental techniques may help the person better deal with the medical interventions.

Learning to use relaxation techniques and imagery skills may help us all deal better with stress. Learning to do deep muscle relaxation and/or really taking the time to meditate or pray each day for a few minutes can be a good start to taking better care of ourselves if we are not already doing so. Letting our sense of humor develop more freely and laughing more often is another sense to explore.

One method studied often is the use of imagery. Although the word, imagery, may bring to mind the use of our visual sense, that is not the only sense used. Think about getting up this morning, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and getting to work.

How did you remember that? Did you feel yourself wanting to stay in bed, wrapped up and quiet for just a few more minutes? Did you see yourself jumping out of bed, ready to face another beautiful day? Did you remember the taste of orange juice as it slid over your taste buds? Did you smell the aroma of coffee as you slowly opened your eyes? Did you remember hearing the alarm on your clock radio or maybe the sound of the TV as you got ready to start your day? As you did this, you just took part in a form of imagery.

Research shows a possible connection between imagery and physiologic responses. If you would like to find out if you can use imagery to elicit a physiologic response, do this little experiment:

First, tell your salivary glands to secrete fluid. Can you make them do that just by commanding them? Most of us are not very successful at commanding the autonomic nervous system thatcontrols the salivary glands.

Now use imagery to elicit a physiologic response. Think about a big, yellow lemon. Remember the tangy smell of the lemon and the feel of its waxy skin. In your mind’s eye, take a sharp knife and cut the lemon in half and watch the juice drip off the side of the lemon. Now imagine taking a big bite out of that tart, juicy lemon. Remember the tangy taste of lemon? Are you salivating like I am? If not, you may want a friend to read the above paragraph to allow you to get the full benefit. What we imagine has an effect on our physiologic responses.

The above was a simple little experiment that allowed you to have a brief glimpse into one method which shows promise in helping people deal with life threatening or chronic illnesses. Now that we know some of the power of our imagination let’s learn to use it to improve our health.