Imagination: A Tool for Change

By Marilyn Landreth, M.A.

How many times have you intellectually known that you needed to improve your health by making a lifestyle change but just couldn’t quite make the change? Next time you might want to enlist the aid of your imagination.

“Through imagination, we can visualize the uncreated worlds of potential that lie within us.”

For many of us the main way we use our imagination is through worry. Martin Rossman, M. D., says “Uncontrolled imagination gives humans the unique ability to compress a lifetime of stress into every passing moment. Worry is a good example of the psychophysiological power of imagery. When you focus on danger and disaster, it can invoke the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome.” Your body is physiologically alert for you to get ready to fight, run, or hide. That constant state of arousal can play a part in many chronic diseases.

Back in 1985, in The Journal of the American Medical Association, William H. Foege, M. D., said that two thirds of deaths are “premature given our present medical knowledge” and that about ”two thirds of the years of life lost before age 65 are theoretically preventable given our current capabilities.” There would be a tremendous savings in lives and resources by changing behavior or lifestyle. Foege also pointed out that, “In the coming decades, the most important determinants of health and longevity will be the personal choices made by each individual.”

In a 1993 article in The Journal of the American Medical Association, McGinnis and Foege reported on a study in which approximately half of the deaths in 1990 were attributed to non-genetic factors, with the top three contributors to death being tobacco, diet and activity patterns, and alcohol.

Imagery can help you make the lifestyle changes that you intellectually know are important to your overall health. According to Dr. Rossman, “Imagery can be used to achieve deep physiologic relaxation, stimulate healing responses in your body, and create an inner dialog that can help you better understand your health and what you can do to improve it.”

There are thousands of scientific studies exploring the connection between the body and mind. We know imagination does influence how we act or react to life and the choices we make in our lifestyle. We all use our imagination in one way or another and, since self awareness is one of the strengths of human beings, learning how we use our imagination is the first step. When we become aware of what drives us to make the choices we do, then we have the ability to make better choices.

Imagination uses all of the senses vision, hearing, smell, feel, and taste. Through the use of my imagination, I code and store information and get in touch with memories. By using my imagination I can visit my childhood home, smell the bread baking in the kerosene oven in the kitchen, and feel the cool waters in the creek that meandered by my childhood home. In my imagination I can explore possibilities and dreams. Imagery allows me to communicate with my silent mind in its native language.

Imagination also plays a part in the stresses of daily life. The results of recent research conducted to study the effect of mental stress on heart problems was reported at an October 1997 meeting of the American Medical Association by James Blumenthal, Ph.D. Dr. Blumenthal and his colleagues found that patients who learned to control their mental stress reduced their risk of having another heart attack by 74% when compared to patients only taking medication. The stress reduction subjects met once a week for an hour and a half in a combination group therapy and stress management meeting. Among other things, they learned to redirect defeatist thoughts. Blumenthal stated that he hoped this study would increase physicians’ awareness of the importance of stress management.

This has already happened in California where the Academy of Guided Imagery has recently developed a stress reduction program based on imagery that will be covered by Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance.

In order to make changes, you first have to know that you can. In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says the first habit is to know that you are the creator of your life. By using your imagination, conscience, independent will, and self awareness, you are empowered to make changes; to’ understand that you do not have to continue with an “ineffective script.” ”Through imagination, we can visualize the uncreated worlds of potential that lie within us.”

I believe I can use my imagination to improve my health by making lifestyle changes. Can you imagine that?