Living With Chronic Pain

How to Make Guided Imagery Work for You

As children we use our imagination to dress up and become kings and queens, pirates, cowboys, dancers, and animals all the time. Given an empty box it becomes a lavish home or fort in the forest. But as we age those flights of fantasy become less frequent until, for most of us, they are extinguished altogether. We seem to believe being an adult means living in “the real world,” and indulging our fanciful needs is inappropriate. But imagination is key to believing and seeing new possibilities. With guided imagery it can be a specific and powerful resource for gaining control of our pain and learning new ways to cope. It can be used to:

  • Improve healing
  • Minimize medication use
  • Decrease pain levels
  • Deal with fearful situations
  • Lower stress
  • Gain a better understanding of our symptoms
  • Acknowledge habits that keep us debilitated and forge healthier ones

All it requires is at least ten minutes of your time. A quiet place where you won’t be interrupted and soft music in the background, if possible.

Start by defining what you need to solve

If you’re afraid of walking up or down stairs or long distances, imagery can be used to see yourself at the bottom looking up. Then taking one step, then another. Feeling the success with each step until you’re finally at the top, triumphantly looking down.

If you want to improve healing focus on the body parts involved, imagine the tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, muscles all getting life saving nutrients. Imagine the cells within each invigorated and restored to their natural health with the surging blood flow. Imagine the joints getting lubricated, the arthritis repairing itself. See the resulting movement, feel the energy.

Stressed, anxious, scared? Think of your “happy place,” a relaxing and safe environment- your back porch, rocking in your favorite chair while listening to the birds chirp and the fountain gurgle. Stress, fear, and anxiety removed, leaving peace and balance in its wake.

Find the most comfortable position

Each of us has that specific position that gives us the most relief. Since I can’t get into a warm, soothing bath every time I want to use guided imagery, I’m forced to fall back to my sleeping position. Flat on my back with my legs up and over several pillows, wrapped safely in my blankets like a cocoon. Once guided imagery is perfected, any position can be used to transport us instantly to our happy, relaxed and safe place.

Control breathing

As I discussed in past posts, often times just breathing deeply from the diaphragm can have mental and physical benefits- decreasing stress, removing toxins and increasing Ph levels to promote healing and repair. Breath in deeply through your nose to the count of five, hold to the count of five, breath out through your mouth to the count of five. Hold there for the count of five.

Set up the scene

The most effective scenarios engage all the senses. If on the beach, feel the warm, grainy sand beneath your feet. Burrow your toes into its depths. Feel the cool mist as the wave approaches, then the cold water as it engulfs your lower legs. Hear the waves pound the shore, rhythmically in and out. Feel the hot sun on your face and look into the amazing horizon where water meets the sky.

Now create the journey

If relaxation is the goal, see yourself aimlessly walking down the beach, feeling each step as it seeps in to the sand, watching the seagulls as they dive to the water, smelling the salt in the air and hearing the waves crash.

If it’s to deal with fears about every day activities, imagine you’re sitting on your couch about to stand. Imagine strong arms pushing yourself up and strong legs taking you the rest of the way up while your core stabilizes your new position. You feel strong and secure. Your shoulders are back, your chin up. The right leg moves forward. Feel the heel hit the ground then distribute the weight as the rest of the foot strikes down and the left leg leaves the floor, propelling you forward. Each step, balanced, strong and in control.

If it’s to control pain, imagine you’re sitting in a comfortable chair outside under a warm spring sun. A light breeze caresses your cheek, the backyard fountain bubbles and falls behind you. See the bright, intense sunlight. Imagine a beam of light shoots from the sky focusing all its warmth and energy between your eyes. All the fears, worries and pain is vaporized as the light fills every nook and cranny of your mind. The soothing warmth and energy spreads and saturated every cell throughout your body.

Let’s get started

You can set up your own scenarios or listen to one of the many options available to play while you close your eyes and listen. The Rogel Cancer Center at the University of Michigan offers a catalog of guided imagery podcasts to the public- find them here.

  • Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Set your phone to “do not disturb.”
  • Get into a comfortable position and wear comfortable clothes.
  • Start diaphragmatic breathing. Deep and controlled.
  • Follow the prompts of the recording or guide yourself down the path.
  • Don’t get flustered or anxious. Just breath and think about calming, relaxing scenarios.

Success takes time, practice and patience. Just 10-15 minutes a day can change how you see, feel and interact with your pain. Once perfected it can be used anywhere, anytime.

Here are some ideas on how to imagine and then control the pain by:

  • Separating and isolating the pain. Imagine sitting in a chair feeling the pain it causes in the lower back. Now get up and walk away, leaving the pain sitting in the chair. 
  • Breaking the pain into its components. If it’s a burning pain, focus on a candle with its wick burning bright, the scent of the candle wafting slowly to your nose. Focus on the candle burning, not you.
  • Anesthetizing the pain. Imagine putting an ice pack on your knee. Feel the cold as it numbs the joint and eases the pain. Or that you’re rubbing a topical numbing or anti-inflammatory cream all over the joint. Feel its texture, it’s medicinal smell as it  penetrates and releases the pain.
  • Amplifying only the positive. Go to your “happy place” where no pain is allowed. There’s no question staying positive improves our ability to overcome adversity and conquer any challenge. The same holds true for chronic pain.
  • Changing your focus. Move you attention from the part that hurts. Think instead about how the grainy, warm sand feels on your feet. Embrace the heat as it spreads from the toes throughout the foot up towards the ankle. This technique moves our focus from the part that hurts, diminishing it’s impact.
  • Putting the pain into something else. Think of your pain encased in a light bulb.or a loud, grating noise. Then slowly turn the brightness or sound down. Feel the pain ebbing with each rotation until it’s so low it can no longer consume or destroy.
  • Engaging your own pain resources. Imagine all your endorphins being released at once. Feel them surging through the body as they calm the mind and surround the painful area. See them attacking the pain until it’s gone.
  • Transferring the pain. Imagine your hand has healing powers. It can purge the pain from any source just by touching it. Now place that hand over the area of pain. Feel it pulling the last remnants away. Grab and secure the pain in your fist, then throw it away.
  • Remembering a better time. Go back in time to a period where the pain didn’t exist. Feel your body free of the pain and worry. Feel the strength and vitality you once felt. Now keep that image and place it onto the present. Feel it overtake and replace the image of someone debilitated, frail or helpless.
  • Taking a deep breath and counting. Too often pain can overwhelm all our senses.  Before you call it a day, stop exercising or swallow a pill take a minute to breath and count. Altering your focus may break the cycle and offer relief.

How we think, feel and perceive ourselves in the world can have a significant impact on what we achieve. Our minds have incredible power. It can keep us immobilized and incapacitated by fear and pain or thrust us forward with the confidence and the belief we can accomplish anything we set out to do. By using guided imagery positive, powerful images can replace negative, debilitating ones. Once learned just closing our eyes and visualizing the proper scenario, anytime and anywhere, we can empower ourselves to make it our new reality.









Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.