Michael Byrne, ND, MA
Psychotherapist, Naturopathic Physician
Seattle Healing Arts Center
6300 9th Ave. NE, Suite 200
Seattle, WA 98115 [map]
(206) 428-2067
Creative Visualization

Creative Visualization

The faculty of the imagination has been used throughout history for healing purposes. There are many techniques and terms which describe this, including creative visualization, guided imagery, metaphor, story-telling, fantasy, role-playing, active imagination, and art therapy. Below I will describe some types of imagery used in healing as well as “how to” tips. Ultimately, while I believe that the healing potential of imagination and the use of our mind is incredible, I’d like to begin with a few cautioning comments.

First, learning that you can have an effect upon your health through using your mind’s ability to imagine should not in any way feed conclusions of self-blame for being sick in the first place. Doing that in no way helps you, and it is wrong. We are all, always, doing the best we can. If we knew better and had the capacity to carry out that knowing, we would do it. Always. Of course you can think of times in the past when you could have done better. We all can. We all could have done better, many times over. But at the time, we honestly did the best that we could. Even if you were tipping back that next beer telling yourself you shouldn’t, the fact of the matter is, you were not able to stop at that moment. If you could have, you would have. Additionally, each moment is new, and the past does not have absolute sway over the present. So it is always possible that at this moment you ARE able to do something that in the last moment you were not. So never use a growing awareness of your power to effect changes lead you to blame yourself for your failings in the past. It is an illogical conclusion. It is helpful to feel increasingly empowered to take greater responsibility for your life. It is unhelpful to chastise repeatedly about failings in the past. The past is done. Keep moving forward.

Another way to put it is this: Any idea or conclusion about yourself that is dis-empowering is false.  One risk of becoming aware of the power of your imagination to heal, is to fall into taking that new sense of responsibility for your health, and to use it to beat yourself up for past or present challenges. My encouragement to you is to take inventory of your thoughts often. Anytime you find a thought that is dis-empowering, trash it. Tell it, “Thank you, but no thank you.” And don’t beat yourself up for having the dis-empowering thought either! Being human, we all invent dis-empowering thoughts. Just calmly notice the thought and let it roll on by. There is a great saying, perhaps of Buddhist origin, I do not know. It is: Don’t believe everything you think.

My second caution is to not necessarily abandon other treatments or healing approaches in your pursuit for healing and growth. Your imagination can be an incredibly powerful tool for healing, and I think it is best to think of it as another tool in your toolbox, not the only one. Diet, exercise, sleep, play, herbal therapies,  medications, surgery, therapy, bodywork, spiritual activities, etc. all may hold a key to your healing and growth. Each may have their time and place.

So lets look at a variety of visualization techniques or categories. This is not an exhaustive list, just something to spark your imagination! :-)

  • Safe/relaxing place – to induce feelings of safety and calm
  • Physiological – to effect specific changes in the body
  • Metaphorical – also to effect changes in the body, but through symbols or other healing powers
  • End state – to generate the desired outcome through visualizing it in the present
  • Relational – to bring to mind supportive people from one’s life (religious figures as well as fictional characters may also be used)
  • Day dreaming – to nurture feelings of relaxation, play and spontaneity
  • Spiritual – to connect with other beings/energies; to strengthen one’s faith or experience of spiritual dimensions
  • Journeying – unstructured or structured, usually used for healing or to gain wisdom/knowledge, often of a spiritual nature as well

One of the first things to do when you have decided to use creative visualization, is to determine if you have a particular goal in mind. Do you want to improve the healing of an injury or illness? Do you want to reduce stress and encourage feelings of relaxation and well-being? Do you want help figuring out how to solve or manage a challenge in your life? Would you like to bolster your confidence? Are you interested in personal growth? Depending on what you want to do, different visualization strategies will be appropriate.

Visualizing a safe/relaxing place and day dreaming are both useful in bringing you to a calmer state. Physiological, metaphorical and end state visualizations are particularly helpful in addressing specific physical concerns. And you can see how bringing a supportive person to mind (relational visualization) and imagining what encouraging things they might say to you could help you to feel more confident, worthy or loveable. I have also included in the list above the categories spiritual and journeying. I will address them in more detail in a later post.

How to visualize:

Often it is useful to find a place and time where you will not be interrupted or distracted. Some people find visualizing easier than others. Having less distractions makes it easier for most people. That said, it is also possible to visualize “on the fly” or while you are going about your day. One can bring up a quick internal image of healing while waiting in line or sitting on the bus. Just make sure you are not diverting your attention from something else that requires it, like driving or a discussion with a loved one.

After finding a time and place to visualize, bringing an internal focus to your attention is the next step. You want to give the outside world less attention as you give your imagination more of your attention. Along with this, many people find it useful to also give themselves some time to allow their body to relax. There are different methods for encouraging body relaxation. A simple one is to start from your feet and move your attention slowly toward your head. As you give each body part your attention, breathe into that area of your body and on the exhale invite it to relax. Do not worry if you find you cannot relax efficiently at first. It can be learned, and you will get better with practice.

After you have gotten a little more relaxed, and you have brought your focus a bit more internally, it is time to bring up the image. You may bring forth an image you have already thought of, or you may let an image come forth out of your imagination. Both are effective. For instance, if you would like a broken bone to health quickly and effectively, you might have already decided that the image of tiny construction workers repairing the bone appeals to you. So at this point you would start thinking about that. Bring in as many of your senses as possible. Perhaps you can hear them yelling instructions to each other and the sound of their tools. You can see them working together, and you see the bone pieces coming together. Maybe you can smell the dust created during the repair process, and feel the bone getting stronger. Bring in as many details as possible. Also note how it feels emotionally to you to know that the bone is being repaired by highly skilled workers. Spend as much time as you like continuing to view the visualization. I have found that 5 – 10 minutes of actual visualizing is enough, though spend more time if you are finding it enjoyable or empowering.

The above example is of the metaphorical type of visualization. If you wanted to use a physiological visualization, you might imagine the bloodstream bringing white blood cells to the area to fight infection, and osteoblast cells building the new bone matrix that connects the bone pieces. Obviously, you will need to know a little about the physiology of your body. If this type of visualization appeals to you, go ahead and research how the body naturally heals and repairs itself.

For an end state visualization in this example, you would imagine the bone already healed and whole. You can imagine you bone in any way that makes sense to you. Furthermore, I would suggest imagining doing things with your healed bone, like running or jumping. The end state is not just the mended bone, but also what you can do with it. Imagine yourself enjoying the activities you like, free from worry or stress or any hesitation in regards to your bone strength. Imagine your bone supporting you perfectly. That is your end state goal. Imagine what it feels like to do these activities that you love. Notice the emotions that come up with this experience and let yourself enjoy it.

That is all for today’s post. We will continue to explore visualization more in further posts. For convenience, here is a quick list of steps that are common to most methods of visualization.

  • find a time and place of least distraction
  • decide what type of visualization you are going to do
  • bring your attention inward
  • invite the body to relax
  • allow an image to come forth, or start imagining what you have decided to visualize
  • use as many of your senses as possible (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste)
  • notice the emotions that arise as well
  • have fun, enjoy yourself, let it feel good!

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