Use Your Imagination to Help You Heal
Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D
 A group of patients waiting for colon and rectal surgery at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation were asked to listen to an audio tape specially prepared for them.  The researchers asked the surgery patients to listen to the tape twice a day, without any interruption, for three days prior to, and six days after the surgery.  The portion of the tape was played for them during the actual surgery and in the recovery room.  Listening to the tape had a very positive effect on the surgery patients.  In the pre-surgery period, when anxiety typically rises for awaiting patients, it went down for them.  These patients also did better after the surgery.  Their level of pain and anxiety was significantly lower compared to the control group, that is, the patients who didn't listen to the tape.  They needed only about half the amount of narcotic pain pills than did the control group, and their bowel functions also returned much more quickly.  
So what was this powerful and magical stuff the researchers had put on the tape?  Well, it was nothing more than a story and a song.  The tape included soft and soothing music, and a story that took patients, in their imagination, to a "special place," a place that was safe, supportive, and relaxing.  The tape was intended to help patients become calm and focused.  Incidentally, during the surgery and in the recovery room, patients only listened to the musical portion of the tape.   
To find something that you can enjoy while waiting for surgery is a very healthy thing to do.  These patients enjoyed listening to the tape and reported that it helped them to sleep better, feel better, worry less, and hurt less.  They experienced nausea, vomiting, and disrupted bowel functions just about the same as control group patients did.  However, they were able to relax more and had an increased sense of physical and emotional wellbeing.  They were so convinced by the benefits of the tape that they pleaded their doctors to give the tape to everyone who went for an abdominal surgery. 
The tape consisted of a technique called, "guided imagery."  In a guided imagery, recorded instructions are provided to guide a listener create specific mental images, such as of a warm sea beach, a creek in the woods, or a cool breeze on the top of the hill.  In the above experiment, the guided imagery given to the surgery patients helped them to imagine that they were in a safe, calming, and relaxing place.   Music made it easier to imagine such a place.  When the patients imagined being in a safe, pleasing, and relaxing place, it helped them to calm their concerns or fears about surgery.       
 Skeptics dismiss the use of imagery because they believe imagination is not real.  They argue how something that is not real can be of any benefit to them.  The fact is that imagination is real, in the sense that it has real physical effects.  For instance, during a dream, (dream is imagination) your body responds with joy, fear, anger, or sadness.   Almost everyone, sometime in their life, has woken up from a nightmare with a very real pounding heart and a real sweating body.  
Researchers hooked movie watchers with biofeedback machines to study their physiological response when they were watching a horror movie on television.   One person's pulse rate jumped from 72 to 99 beats per minute.  Another person's finger temperature dropped from 90 to an icy cold temperature of 30.  Why did these real physical changes occur?  After all, the movie watchers knew it was only a movie, not a real event.  Nonetheless, their bodies still reacted as if it was a real event.  The reason is that our brain often cannot distinguish whether we are imagining something or actually experiencing it.  When a person realizes that, he or she realizes the power of imagination.    
 Picture yourself holding a lemon in your hand, the drops of lemon juice dropping on your tongue, and your mouth will most probably begin to water.  Picture yourself lying under the sun on a sandy beach and your body will respond to some degree as if you are actually there.  When you create vivid visual images of places, people and things, and imagine the smell, taste, and touch that go with your visual images, you create almost real experiences for your body and mind.  Your imagination can be a very powerful resource in relieving stress, pain, fear, or other types of discomforts.       
 When guided imagery is used for the purpose of stimulating the body's natural healing powers, it is called, "healing imagery."  Healing imagery was first used in cancer patients.  Cancer patients imagined their tumors shrinking, cancer cells being destroyed, or their immune cells multiplying.  Since then, healing imageries have been tried for a variety of medical conditions.  
To relieve tension and stress, imagine a tight, twisted rope, slowly untwisting or, tension swirling out of your body, draining downward until it drains out through your toes.  To strengthen your immune function, imagine white blood cells rapidly multiplying like millions of seeds bursting from a giant ripe seedpod.  To ease asthma, imagine that the tiny elastic rubber bands that constrict your airways pop open.  For arteries, imagine a miniature Roto Rooter truck cleaning out your clogged pipes.  
 Use images that are vivid, strong, and meaningful for you.  You can create any image you like.  It doesn't have to be a medically accurate image.  If you feel good when you imagine something, it's the right one for you.  If you adhere to your medical treatment, your imagination can't harm you.  Just be creative in your imagination.    
file: newspaper/healthy index: mindbody, healing imagery 12/20/97

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