It's All in Your Imagination by Peggy Haymes

What if there was something you could do to help yourself deal with anxiety, set goals, reduce stress, deal with chronic pain, improve rate of healing following surgery, reduce infectious illness, help heal old wounds of soul and spirit, improve performance in the present and create new possibilities for the future? It sounds like a late night infomercial pitch. I half expect to hear someone say, "But wait, there's more..."

This is no midnight sales pitch. It's a technique whose effectiveness has been proven in all of these areas. It's called guided imagery, sometimes called visualization. Guided imagery is the creation of an experience through the use of mental imagery. Have you ever watched Olympic skiers while they wait at the top of the hill to enter the starting gate? With eyes closed, they rehearse the run they're about to take. Their poles flick in and out as they visualize themselves making the turns and going through the gates. That's a form of visualization, and it's been shown to improve athletic performance.

Those of us who are not Olympic athletes can also take advantage of this empowering self-help tool. Perhaps you have an important meeting or presentation coming up at work. A natural tendency for is to worry about all of the things that can go wrong. Worrying increases stress and anxiety levels. The more stressed and anxious people are, the greater the likelihood that they won't perform up to the level that they'd like. On the other hand, using a positive visualization can produce the opposite effect. We visualize the meeting going well. We picture ourselves making our presentation, speaking smoothly and easily and with great confidence. It's like depositing money into a bank account. The more that you "deposit' into the account through the use of positive visualization, the more confidence you'll have to draw upon during the actual event.

Does this mean that you can forget about preparing for your meeting and just imagine that it'll be wonderful? No, visualization doesn't take place of concrete action. Olympic skiers train very hard for their races. But some people get tripped up not by a lack of preparedness, but by their own anxiety or nervousness. Visualization can help with that. It can also be used to create pictures for change. Picture yourself five years from now. What kind of job are you working in - or are you working at all? Where are you living? With whom are you living? Sometimes, our imagination will present to us dreams that our rational minds have been shooing away.

Guided imagery is also an excellent tool for general relaxation, help with insomnia or dealing with chronic pain. In these instances, a person uses a tape or a CD in which a speaker guides them through the experience. The imagery may focus on a progressive muscle relaxation, guiding your attention down through the various muscles of the body, relaxing them one by one. Or, the imagery may guide you to a place that's relaxing for you, such as standing on the beach or in the midst of a cool, green forest. If you are dealing with injury, illness or chronic pain, the speaker may ask you to focus on that area, using your imagination to soothe it with warm light or wrapping it in something soft and gentle.

Guided imagery is also a valuable tool in helping people heal the wounds of their childhood. While people cannot change their past, through their imagination, they can rewrite the endings. People carry within them the children that we were, and if those children were wounded, they are never too old to heal them. The wounded child that is inside the adult body and through guided imagery, they can finally experience healing and resolve. One study examined the effect of stress management and guided imagery on forty-five children who had histories of frequent upper respiratory tract infections. While the infections were not eliminated, the frequency and duration of those infections decreased for both the stress management group and the guided imagery group. Blood work showed an increase in immune system functioning for these groups. All of the benefits cited in the opening of this article have been supported through research studies.

Want to learn more about guided imagery? The internet is a good place to start. Type the words into a search engine and you'll find a host of resources. Some things, such as relaxation and stress relief, can be picked up and used easily at home. Deeper work may require that you make an appointment with a professional certified in guided imagery work. This is particularly important if you are dealing with childhood or other deep wounds. A professional counselor can provide a safe environment for you to do this kind of work.

Peggy Haymes is a licensed professional counselor in Winston Salem, NC and co-author of the audio CD, "Feeling Good: Four Guided Imagery Journeys for Healing Body, Mind and Spirit." To order this CD, please visit: www.healing-growth-change.com or email her at phaymes@triad.rr.com.