Healing Depression with Guided Imagery Techniques


Guided imagery is the use of visualizations, words, and/or music to evoke positive images that bring beneficial effect for a person. Guided imagery is more than just visualizing something you want or imagining things a different way; it is a process of using the connection between body and mind to bring about positive changes in yourself, and it has been used to treat depression.

Apparently, kicking back, relaxing and listening while a gentle voice leads us on a quiet, inner journey, not only makes us feel better for the moment, but has lasting beneficial effects. Can it be this easy? Can we really feel less anxious or depressed, perceive our life is more pleasant and have an easier time sharing ourselves with others just through some subtle, inward shift?

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Historical Approach

When writing on the history of guided imagery, Schoettle described many early 20th century examples of its use, starting with therapeutically working with daydreams. For example, Schoettle pointed out that Freud's psychoanalysis is based on the, "unraveling of the patient's fantasies, daydreams, and dreams" and, "continues to be a cornerstone in current analytical techniques". In the 1920s, Kretschmer and Desoille began using the daydream in therapy. Kretschmer referred to these inner visions as bildstreifendenken, or thinking in the form of a movie. Desoille referred to his therapeutic technique as the guided daydream.

Jacob Morena developed the therapeutic technique of psychodrama in the 1940s, in which trained participants, referred to as "auxiliary egos," playing key individuals in a person's life, re-enacted the patient's personal problems on stage. This can be now understood as a way of guiding the externalization of the client's internal imagery. In 1954, Hans Carl Leuner developed a technique he called experimentelles katathymes bilderleben, or experimentally introduced cathathymic imagery, and further developed psychodrama, which he called Symboldrama psychotherapy or guided affective imagery. William Swartley introduced Leuner's technique in the United States in 1965 as a diagnostic tool, calling it initiated symbol projection.

In the late 1960s, Joseph Wolpe introduced several imagery-related techniques in behavior-modification therapy: systematic desensitization, aversive-imagery methods, symbolic-modeling techniques and implosive therapy.

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How Guided Imagery Works

Similar to meditation, guided imagery involves entering into a calm, peaceful state of mind. Unlike meditation, your concentration is guided—usually by an instructor or audio recording—to a specific image, hence the name guided imagery.

The goal of guided imagery is to use the mind to create desired effects in the body, such as a calming, energizing, or releasing negative emotions. It exercises the right side of the brain, which controls creativity, spatial abilities, and more. Basically, it allows your critical-thinking senses to relax so the emotional ones can do work.  

Guided imagery can help with depression by actively combating negative thoughts and emotions and replacing them with positive imagery. For example, a common feeling among people with depression is alienation. During guided imagery, a person can visualize being surrounded by loved ones. Feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem can be replaced with images of moments of congratulation for a job well done.

Guided imagery is a clinically proven, psychologist-recommended course of action against everything from depression, anxiety, weight-loss, pain, and other conditions. It is not about religion or chanting mantras, rather, the techniques used in it are carefully researched and planned by trained mental health professionals. Some recordings that are available for sale may contain subliminal messages, meant to give you deeper impact. In those, there are extra messages hidden in the recordings that may help you to absorb the peaceful messages even quicker.

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Pros of Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is a proactive way to deal with negative thoughts and feelings and to relieve potential symptoms of depression, such as fatigue, stress, and anxiety. Guided imagery sessions can be brief, which make them easy to incorporate into hectic schedules. Guided imagery can also be used immediately to handle bits of everyday stress that have the potential to expand into something larger.

There are multiple reviews confirming measurable positive effect of the guided imagery therapy on human health, where depression is caused by other health related issues.

A critical review out of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California, examined the research on guided imagery’s effects on the immune system. The author states that studies suggest that guided imagery can:
  1. reduce stress and elevate the immune system;
  2. that cell-specific imagery affects corresponding white blood counts (WBCs), neutrophils and/or lymphocytes;
  3. that decreases in white blood counts occur in the initial stages of GI and relaxation, due to fluctuations in WBC production or margination;
  4. and that changes in WBC count or adherence occur earlier in medical patients.

Applying to the cancer patients treatment, guided imagery may not reduce cancer cells, but it is quite effective in reducing depression, anxiety, somatic disturbances such as vomiting associated with chemotherapy.

The Inova Heart Center in Falls Church, reported that its clinical research has demonstrated that guided imagery, a simple form of relaxation, can reduce preoperative anxiety and postoperative pain among patients undergoing surgical procedures. Patients who completed the guided imagery program had a shorter average length of stay, a decrease in average direct pharmacy costs, and a decrease in average direct pain medication costs while maintaining high overall patient satisfaction with the care and treatment provided.

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In a 2005 Korean Study, two control groups of 30 women with breast cancer were studied. Group #1 was given progressive muscle relaxation training (PMRT) and taught to use guided imagery during their 6 months of chemotherapy. Group #2 was treated with chemotherapy alone. The group practicing muscle relaxation and guided imagery, #1 has experienced less nausea and vomiting, and they were less anxious, depressed, and irritable than group #2 receiving chemotherapy alone. Six months after treatment ended, group #1 was still experiencing a better quality of life than the group #2.

In a similar British study published in 1999, 96 women with newly diagnosed large or locally advanced breast cancer were split into 2 groups. Both groups received traditional cancer care including 6 cycles of chemotherapy. However one group also received relaxation training and guided imagery. The women, receiving training through guided imagery and muscle relaxation techniques, experienced better quality of life and easier expression of emotions than the group receiving only the traditional care.

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Cons of Guided Imagery

Guided imagery may be suitable for people with short-term or mild depression, but it is no replacement for medication, psychotherapy, and other treatments for people with moderate, severe, or chronic depression.
There is little to no clinical research to support the efficacy of guided imagery as a treatment for depression. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from people who have used guided imagery as a complement to more traditional depression treatments.

Self-Application

While the approach is practiced by many therapists, you may want to explore the self-application between the sessions. Here is the guide prepared by Cindi Wafstet, which might help you at first.



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Lie on your back on a bed or floor. Make sure you are wearing loose clothing or are covered with a blanket.

Start with your feet and work your way up...

Relax your feet, toes, ankles. Visualize the color black which is the color of grounding. Spend about 3 minutes on each area.

Relax your legs, knees, thighs and hips. Visualize the color brown for direction.

Relax your lower torso, this is your base chakra. Visualize the color red for your foundation. This is where you will go if you have problems with the spine, bladder infections, reproductive organs, sexual problems, depression..

Relax your abdomen area which is the sacral chakra. Visualize the color orange for your vital force. This is where you will go if you have problems with grief, anxiety problems, low self-esteem, anger problems or obsession with sex...

Relax your solar plexus area which is the solar chakra. Visualize the color yellow for ego. This is where you will go if you have problems with digestion, difficulty working with others, drug addictions...

Relax your chest area which is the heart chakra. Relax your arms, hands and fingers at the same time. This chakra has two colors, so you can visualize either green or pink. This is where you will go if you have problems with love and/or relationship problems, heart, lungs (such as asthma), immune system, manic depressive (bi-polar), problems with money....

Relax your throat area which is the throat chakra. Visualize the color blue. This is where you will go if you have problems with your throat (sore throats, etc), talking too much, not talking enough, communication problems of any kind, thyroid disorders, shyness...

Relax your head and face, your forehead is your third eye chakra. Visualize the color purple. This is where you will go if you have problems with spirituality, empathy, anything to do with the mind/brain, learning disorders, sleep problems.

Now this is the hard part.. to do and to understand. Your 7th chakra is your crown chakra and is about 2 inches above the top of your head. This is where your soul/spirit/aura starts and surrounds your entire body. It's the hardest chakra to open and cleanse. Don't worry if you don't
totally understand it. But try to be "open-minded" for that's what an open crown chakra is. Visualize a white or gold light starting at the top of your head and swirling all around you from head to toe.

Rest for minute or two just visualizing the rainbow of colors encased in a white or gold bubble.

Now imagine yourself walking into a room, a room that feels so familiar and so comfortable that you feel you never want to leave. Think about what is in this room.. the colors, the furniture, the items that make you feel so at home. This is your safe place. Do you feel better being outside? Then notice that the room has a set of French doors that open up to the outside. What is out there? But before you go outside, notice a tall cabinet with lots of drawers and doors, all with locks. Place your concerns, fears and worries in these drawers and lock them up tight. Nothing will harm you from this point on. Do this even if you plan to stay in your safe room. The Buddhists call this 'compartmentalizing'.

Visualize/imagine whatever environment makes you the most comfortable. For me it's a beach with waves splashing to the shore. There is a green cabana type beach house and on the top is a Raven, my main spirit guide. He has white rings around his eyes and allows me to see amazing things through his eyes. Whenever I meditate or have hypnotherapy or astral project, Raven is with me.

In your safe place, what do you see? What do you hear? I hear the sound of waves rushing in and then flowing back out. What do you smell? I can smell the salty air. I can taste the salt in the air, too. What can you taste? What do you feel? Is the sandy beach like where I am? Establish your safe place. Give it a name if you like. Now what does your intuition tell you? Use your imagination, which is actually just your intuition anyway.

Remember what your intuition/imagination is telling you.

Now do you remember the different chakras? Take yourself there visually, depending on what area you need to go and what you need to fix. The steps of this part are...

* Acknowledge the part of the body that needs to be healed.
* Thank that part for all that it does for you.
* Apologize
* Ask what it needs
* Promise to make amends and take of what needs to be healed
* Ask the pain if it will leave
* Say thank you again

Allow yourself to rest for a few minutes and then one by one, starting at the top of your head, close the chakras… simply by visualizing a door closing.

Your meditation is finished. Remember your safe place will always be there just as you left it any time you need it. You can even go there in your mind without going thru the meditation process. Any time you feel scared, anxious or threatened, allow your mind to go to your safe place.

Oh, and those worries, fears and concerns? You can just leave there in that cabinet it you wish. No one will bother them and they will never get lost, and you won't have to carry them around with you.

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