Imagery is the biological connection between the mind and body

Guided Imagery is also often referred to as Imagery or Visualisation, and is the use of images to assist one to imagine and attain a specific goal.

Guided Imagery is based on the premise that the mind and body are connected, and that one can use one’s imagination to influence one’s physical health and sense of well-being. Guided Imagery involves far more than just the visual sense though, which is a good thing as only around 55% of people are strongly wired visually. Guided imagery techniques therefore involve all of the senses.

Advocates have long contended that the imagination is a potent healer that has long been overlooked by practitioners of Western medicine, and believe that Imagery can relieve pain, speed healing and help the body subdue hundreds of ailments, including depression, impotence, allergies and asthma.

The power of the mind to influence the body is quite remarkable. Although it isn’t always curative, imagery can be helpful in 90% of the problems that people normally visit their primary care physician for.

From the famous healing temples of ancient Greece to present-day pilgrims traveling to Mecca and Lourdes, from the Hermetic rites to help a person visualise himself in perfect health to modern-day Christian Science; visualisation has been employed as a powerful tool for inner change.

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A History of the Medical Use of Guided Imagery /Visualisation

Imagery has been considered a healing tool in virtually all of the world’s cultures and is an integral part of many religions. Navajo Indians, for example, practice an elaborate form of imagery that encourages a person to “see” himself as healthy. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, including Aristotle and Hippocrates believed that images release spirits in the brain that arouse the heart and other parts of the body. They also thought that a strong image of a disease is enough to cause its symptoms.

Among the forty-two books of Hermes, considered to be the earliest-known founder of the art of healing, there are six which are medical, classified as the Pastophorus or “image-bearers.”

Early uses of visualisation in healing were based on a religious or mystical tradition, permeating the thought of the mystery schools including the Hermetic, the Essenes, the Platonic philosophers, and later the Rosicrucians, the Kabbalists, and Gnostic Christians. All had in common a belief in the primacy of spirit over matter, of mind over body.

In the middle ages, Paracelsus (1493-1541) devoted his entire life to the study of Hermetic healing. Many remarkable cures are ascribed to him. Although the medical fraternity of the times maligned him, he was adored by the masses and extolled on his tombstone: “Here lies buried Philip Theophastus the famous Doctor of Medicine who cured Wounds, Leprosy, Gout, Dropsy and other Incurable Maladies of the Body, with wonderful Knowledge and gave his goods to be divided and distributed to the Poor.”

In 1964 Robert Holt offered a strong argument in favour of imagery research in his article, “The Return of the Ostracized.


The concept of imagery therapy was popularised in modern times with the best-selling book Getting Well Again (1979), which described the experience of Carl and Stephanie Simonton as they treated cancer patients using imagery and various other forms of therapy. In the book, they profiled what they call the average “cancer personality,” and how the reaction to stress can contribute to the onset and progression of cancer. According to the Simontons, self-awareness and positive expectations contribute greatly to survival and they described techniques to learn relaxation, manage pain and develop a positive attitude through visualisation.

In 1985, an alternative health advocate and pioneer in guided imagery named Jeanne Achterberg published Imagery in Healing. This influential book explores the systematic use of imagery and the positive impact it can have on the course of illness and its ability to help patients cope with pain. The book brought together modern research with the practice of early healers with her claim that imagery is the oldest and most powerful form of healing in the world. This book is now a classic in the alternative medicine field.

In these early days from the 1980’s to the 1990’s, most imagery experts taught people to actually visualize what was happening to their body, which is very different from the guided imagery we use today. Patients were often asked to visualize their white blood cells conquering cancer cells, imagine a Pac-Man eating up the cancer or visualise the tumour shrinking.

Unfortunately, not everyone finds this type of visualisation easy, which led to the development of imagery that engages all senses, allowing you to imagine emotions, smells, tastes, sounds, and feelings.

In the early part of this century, behaviourist John Watson called imagery “bunk” and relegated it to “psychology’s dead past.” Now imagery and visualisation are becoming important and influential once again.

Swami Rama, in explaining his ability to control his heart rate, blood flow, and other physical processes stated, “All of the body is in the mind, but not all of the mind is in the body.” Ayurvedic medicine, the Swami’s tradition, had, from ancient to modern times, as its real purpose, the development of consciousness rather than simply the healing of disease.

The modern Indian philosopher, Sri Aurobindo, has stated that you can think of spirit as the subtlest form of matter, or you can think of matter as the densest form of spirit. Physical bodies, emotions, thoughts, and spirit are all interpenetrating energy structures in Sri Aurobindo’s system. This is also the basic position put forth in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, dating back to the second century before Christ.

Initiates of the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwas, were instructed in healing and in directing the forces moving through the vital centres of the human body through visualisations; in modern times, American Indian Medicine Men such as Rolling Thunder evoke the powers of the mind in healing the body through visualisations.

The past 30 years have seen dramatic, exciting gains in how we use guided imagery with cancer treatment.

While general research could not prove that imagery/ visualisation really could heal cancer, clinicians and researchers could prove that guided imagery could reduce the unpleasant side effects of cancer and its treatment (anxiety; depression; fatigue; fear of medical procedures; nausea; pain; stress), and that it could improve coping ability, energy, confidence, hopefulness, motivation and quality of life.

The data kept streaming in, and after a few decades, guided imagery went from being a cassette-tape a few cranky, demanding patients insisted on bringing with them to chemotherapy sessions, to becoming a legitimate adjunctive (connected) tool for treatment that pharma gave out alongside their anti-emetics.

In 2008 there was a notable uptick in research, involving state-of-the-art blood assays and brain scans. Several exciting studies were published, showing that guided imagery could indeed produce changes in immune activity on the cellular level. (So did hypnosis and meditation).

Hospitals tripled their adoption rates of guided imagery (also massage therapy, meditation, and Healing Touch or Reiki) between 2000 & 2010, and the American Cancer Society began describing imagery as a useful adjunct to help cancer patients cope.

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Guided Imagery /Visualisation as a Complementary Therapy

Imagery is the most fundamental language we have. Everything you do, the mind processes through images. When we recall events from our past or childhood, we think of pictures, images, sounds, pain, etc. It is hardly ever through words.


Images aren’t necessarily limited to visuals but can be sounds, tastes, smells, or a combination of sensations. A certain smell, for example, may invoke either pleasant or bad memories in you. Similarly, going to a place where you had a bad accident may instantly invoke visions of the accident and initiate flight or fight response.

Think, for example, of holding a fresh, juicy lemon in your hand. Perhaps you can feel its texture or see the vividness of its yellow skin.

As you slice it open, you see the juice squirt out of it. The lemon’s tart aroma is overwhelming. Finally, you stick it in your mouth, suck on it and taste the sour flavour as the juices roll over your tongue.

More than likely, your body reacted in some way to that image. For example, you may have begun to salivate.

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Guided Imagery and Music

Many people trace the use of guided imagery in medicine to Helen Bonny (1921-2010), a music therapist who explored the way music affects the mind and how it may be used to expand consciousness for therapeutic purposes.

In the 1970’s, she joined with consciousness researchers who sought treatment for patients with serious illnesses like cancer using psychedelic and psychotropic drugs.


Through her work, music came to be seen as an important element of this research to help patients explore their inner mental state, selecting and sequencing music to maximize the therapeutic effect.

She eventually developed a process called the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), which is psychotherapy based on music and a trained facilitator.

Her method continually changes today and it’s been used to treat individuals and groups in health care and clinical settings. It’s been found effective for stress-related, physical, emotional, and addiction disorders.

Imagery can be used with standard medical treatment in people with cancer and may be particularly helpful for younger children, to help them relax during conventional treatment, or during their stay in hospital. Evidence suggests it may reduce some of the side effects of chemotherapy. It is considered safe, and can be taught by a trained therapist, then practised at home.

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As late as the 80’s, guided imagery was seen in much of the oncology community as unmitigated nonsense.

Several studies since, involving state-of-the-art blood assays and brain scans, suggest that guided imagery can result in an increased natural killer cell activity; boost the immune system on the cellular level;

Danish researchers found increased natural killer cell activity among ten college students who imagined that their immune systems were becoming very effective. Natural killer cells are an important part of the immune system because they can recognise and destroy virus-infected cells, tumour cells, and other invaders.

In another study, data analysis from the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine (Hudacek) on a group of metastatic cancer patients using daily imagery for a year concluded that hypnotic imagery yielded a significantly heightened count of “natural killer” or NK cells.

A piece in the International Journal of Neuroscience (Trakhtenberg) described how guided imagery elevated immune system functioning, and how cell-specific imagery affects corresponding white blood counts, neutrophils, and lymphocytes.

In a small study at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, 7 participants suffering from recurrent canker sores in their mouths managed to significantly reduce the frequency of their outbreaks by visualising the sores bathed in a soothing coating of white blood cells.

A small but well-designed study with breast cancer patients (Lengacher et al) in that same year — 2008 — by a group of researchers from the University of South Florida showed that guided imagery produced significant effect sizes, with increased natural killer cell activity and cytotoxicity, and increased activation of Interleukin-2.

a larger randomised, controlled study out of the UK with breast cancer patients (Eremin, Walker, et al) revealed big differences in activated T-cells, natural killer cells, and lymphokine-activated killer cells, concluding that guided imagery up-regulated anti-cancer host defences during and after chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

A randomised, controlled study out of M.D. Anderson (Cohen et al) with men with prostate cancer showed that those who used diaphragmatic breathing and guided imagery had significantly higher levels of natural killer cell cytotoxicity, higher levels of circulating pro-inflammatory cytokines, and higher tumour necrosis factor-α.  While the immune parameters got better and better for the intervention group, they decreased or stayed the same for the controls.

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From literature on the effectiveness of imagery:

A Walk on the Beach

Heidi, thirty-five, was scheduled for a round of chemotherapy for breast cancer. The treatment was to take place on Friday and she and her husband had tickets to fly to Hawaii on Saturday for a week’s vacation.

As is routine, she was called into the treatment center for a blood check on the Monday before to make sure her white cell count had recovered enough from the previous treatment to allow her to qualify for the next one. To her shock, she was told that her white count was only about half what it should be and she would probably have to forego her vacation.

For four days she practiced imagery intensively several times a day, concentrating on raising her white count. She used images of the bone marrow releasing a steady, strong flow of white cells into her bloodstream and spreading throughout her body. She also imagined directing her breath into the bone marrow and thereby nourishing the stem cells (that produce the white cells) so that they could grow and release more white cells.

On that Friday, she went in for another blood test. Her white count had more than doubled. She was able to have the treatment and the next day was able to walk on the beach with her husband.

The Vital Fluid

Carol Anne was scheduled to undergo a complicated abdominal surgery to remove a cancerous tumour. Her surgeon told her that patients undergoing this procedure typically lose ten to eleven units of blood.

For several days prior to the surgery, Carol Anne practiced a form of imagery in which she pictured her body going through the surgery without losing any blood, the tissues knitting back together smoothly, no complications, and a speedy recovery. She also imagined the look on the surgeon’s face when he realized that no blood had been lost.

The day after the surgery, the surgeon came into her room and congratulated her on how well she had come through the ordeal. To his amazement, she had required only one unit of blood. When she told him of her preparations, he smiled and walked out shaking his head.

Studies on the Effectiveness of Imagery are Continuing

The Office of Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health, is funding the following investigations involving imagery:

  • James Halper of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City is conducting a controlled study of the benefits of guided imagery for patients with asthma.
  • Mary Jasnoski of George Washington University, Washington, D.C., is examining the effects of imagery on the immune system, with potential implications for use in cancer and AIDS.
  • Blair Justice of the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston was funded to conduct a controlled study examining the effects of a group imagery/ relaxation process on immune function and quality of life in breast cancer patients.

There is evidence of increased immune function on many levels and with many indicators, but so far, that hasn’t translated into changes in clinical outcomes with cancer per se.

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How is Guided Imagery /Visualisation Administered?

Guided Imagery is a program of directed thoughts and suggestions that guide your imagination toward a relaxed, focused state.

When properly constructed, guided imagery meditation has the built-in capacity to deliver multiple layers of complex, encoded messages by way of simple symbols and metaphors. You might say it acts like a depth charge dropped beneath the surface of the psyche, where it can reverberate again and again.


One of the most appealing and forgiving features of imagery is that almost anyone can use it. Although children and women probably have a slight, natural advantage, imagery skips across the barriers of education, class, race, gender, and age – a truly equal opportunity intervention.

You can use an instructor, tapes, or scripts to help you through this process. A therapist uses their voice, music or nature sounds to guide you into a state of deep relaxation and takes you on a journey in your imagination.

You may choose to create your own images that remind you of a safe, relaxing and peaceful place, such as a forest, beach, or a favourite room. You can imagine the sounds, smells, and feelings of being in that place.

Whether you use imagery that’s been created by someone else or your own imagery, sooner or later your own imagination will take over; even when listening to imagery that’s been recorded, the mind will automatically edit, skip, change or substitute what’s being offered for what is needed, using your own unique imagination.

The main methods used in guided imagery are:

  • The Simonton Method has people with cancer imagine their bodies fighting the cancer cells. You might be asked to imagine breathing in a cloud of soft healing energy, with deep regular breaths, and feel the healing spread throughout your body.
  • The Palming Method involves imagining different colours to represent different things. You put your hands over your eyes and imagine a colour that you think represents being anxious or afraid. You then imagine that colour being replaced by another colour that you believe represents strength, courage or healing. For example, if you think brown is the colour of fear, you imagine your body slowly being surrounded and healed by a soft light of another colour that removes your fear, leaving you with a sense of peace.
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Side Effects or Risks

Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about trying guided imagery.

Guided imagery has no known risks, and it’s thought to be safe, but it is important that the therapist offering guided imagery has training and experience in using the therapy with people living with cancer.

As with all types of psychological therapy, some people may find guided imagery helpful, while others may not.

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Inner Health StudioVisualisation Scripts

The visualisation scripts provided here allow you to learn to quickly and easily relax at home. Visualization is the process by which you relax by picturing a relaxing scene, place, or image. (For your personal, private use only)

Guided Imagery Scripts: Free Relaxation Scripts

The free guided imagery scripts provided here allow you to relax and make positive changes. Guided Imagery can be used to visualize positive actions, changes, or accomplishments. (For your personal, private use only)


Please note that the Little Fighters Cancer Trust shares information regarding various types of cancer treatments on this blog merely for informational use. LFCT does not endorse or promote any specific cancer treatments – we believe that the public should be informed but that the option is theirs to take as to what treatments are to be used.

Always consult your medical practitioner prior to taking any other medication, natural or otherwise.