Guided Imagery in Cancer Care
February 12, 2020
Imagery is the natural language of the human subconscious.
Imagery is the natural language of the human subconscious, a rich, sensory-based and emotional coding language of the brain/mind that shows itself in human culture through art, poetry and drama. It is the language of dreams, visions, insights, intuitions and creativity. Imagery allows us both to become aware of and change our perceptions of our external and internal environments. It is central to mind/body healing because the body both responds to imagery-based suggestions, and also communicates to the conscious mind through images and symbols.
One of the reasons mental imagery is so important in healing is that the body responds much more quickly to images than it does to verbal requests or suggestions. For instance, if I asked you to salivate right now, you might be able to produce a little saliva. But if I asked you to vividly imagine sucking on a lemon you will salivate much more. If I asked you to imagine sitting in front of your favorite meal, and imagine how it looks, and smells, and what it will taste like, your stomach and intestines will begin to secrete digestive juices and begin to move. Sexual fantasy will get you physiologically aroused. And when you learn to use images as multi-sensory suggestions of healing responses in the body, your body will respond with changes in muscle tension, blood flow, immune activity, better sleep and better digestion.
Imagery is like the Rosetta Stone of body/mind/spirit communication.
Imagery is not only an effective form of suggestion to the body, it is also a symbolic language that can allow your unconscious to communicate to you what it may be feeling and how it perceives situations including your health. In a very real way, imagery is like the Rosetta Stone of body/mind/spirit communication.
When I work with patients in my practice, the focus is always on what the most important issues are to that patient at that time. In cancer care, if a patient has been recently diagnosed, the initial focus is on making sure they have the best oncological and support care, and on helping them learn ways to manage the fear and other strong emotions that almost always accompany a cancer diagnosis. I invite them to create a simple image that represents the outcome they would have if it were up to them. This image serves as a touchstone and guiding light for them as they navigate the complex world of treatment decisions, tolerating treatments, and learning about supporting their innate abilities to heal.
A woman I once worked with was an advanced skier. When I invited her to allow an image to form that would help her through her cancer journey, she imagined herself at the top of a very challenging ski run. As she surveyed the imaginary slope in front of her, noticing the trees and rocks she would have to avoid, she said, “It’s important to know what to avoid, but once I push off, the only place to look is where I want to go, never where I don't want to go.”
Most people dealing with cancer can learn simple, straightforward imagery techniques.
Most people dealing with cancer can learn simple, straightforward imagery techniques to relax, reduce anxiety and fear, reduce or relieve side effects like nausea from chemotherapy, prepare for and recover from surgery, reduce pain and discomfort, and help themselves sleep. The easiest way to learn these skills is to listen to audios that guide you through the process, like the ones recommended in our More Information section of our Guided Imagery summary.
If you are the kind of person to whom it’s important to explore the meaning of life events, or find the best you can make from them, imagery can allow you to explore your experience of cancer in this light. Usually it’s best to do this with an experienced and trusted therapist or guide familiar with imagery.
One other aspect of guided imagery I want to mention is that images may be unintentionally conveyed to you in your interactions with your doctors or other health professionals. The fact that both the patients’ and physicians’ expectations impact treatment effects is the reason that we go to the immense trouble and expense to do double-blind studies. Although researchers want to eliminate the effect that patient beliefs have on their experience and outcome, patients and clinicians want to maximize its benefit and use it to therapeutic advantage. An effective oncologist is someone who will treat cancer expertly but also treat you respectfully, encourage your participation in your healing efforts, and be mindful of what they are communicating through their words and expressions.