Guided imagery can help transport you into nature, via your imagination, and achieve similar soothing found from actually being in nature. That study found that, though both types of guided imagery (nature and urban) were effective, a nature-based guided imagery session decreased anxiety more significantly than urban visualization.
Other science offers supporting evidence for the benefits of guided imagery for mood concerns associated with chronic conditions. In a systematic review that evaluated multiple interventions for people with inflammatory bowel disease, including guided imagery, and a separate trial for people with multiple sclerosis exploring the efficacy of healing-light guided imagery, the authors found that these relaxation techniques may improve anxiety or depression in both groups.
That said, one systematic review (PDF) of studies on various kinds of guided imagery on younger participants (ages 12 to 24) emphasized that although the research is promising for the use of this technique to help treat anxiety or depression, it’s primarily used as a complement to mainstream psychological care.
Overall, treating mood and mental health conditions can require a variety of tools (like talk therapy and medication), and guided imagery may be one of those approaches. Work with your therapist to establish a care plan that works for you.
2. May Assist in Trauma Care
If you’re receiving trauma therapy, guided imagery may help support you through that work. “Its purpose is to create a safe environment to relax and ground yourself during trauma intervention,” says Michael P. Huttar, with the University of Houston–Clear Lake Counseling Services.
He explains that working with patients who’ve experienced trauma involves teaching coping skills, but these coping skills may not be enough in the event they have a traumatic flashback while in therapy. In those instances, it may be helpful to redirect your attention toward something comforting and peaceful. Guided imagery is one technique “to purposely shift where we’re living in the moment,” he says.
In one study in Germany, 42 traumatized refugees reported that guided imagery audio meditations and a technique called the “inner safe place” helped many feel more secure, further away from their worries, and better able to stabilize and cope with post-migratory distress factors. It’s important to note that this study was largely driven by the self-practice of the refugees, supported by an in-person interview nine days after receiving guided imagery audio files and two months later via phone.
In the United States, the use of guided imagery in trauma therapy should be performed under the supervision and care of a licensed therapist.
3. May Support You in Stressful Times
We all have seasons of life that are particularly stressful. Perhaps you’re approaching a big deadline, you’re taking care of an ill family member, you’re experiencing grief after a breakup, or any number of other stress-inducing transitions. For the students Huttar works with, finals and midterms bring on stress.
Once you learn the steps of guided imagery, you can tap into the special place you visit in guided imagery meditation to potentially infuse daily stressors with a sense of calm and focus. “Guided imagery can be rehearsed from when you first wake up in the morning to set the tone for the day or before bed to come down from the day,” he says, adding that it is useful throughout the day as well. Guided imagery gives your mind something positive to latch on to rather than spiraling into the negative, Huttar explains.
4. May Help You Relax Before Medical Procedures
Whether it’s getting blood drawn, waiting to go into surgery, or receiving chemotherapy, guided imagery can take you out of your circumstances and help you feel good. “Often, guided imagery is used both in anticipation of and during a stressful medical event,” says Kreitzer.
It can even be used medically to distract from discomfort in the moment, like when having the dressing for a wound changed or getting an IV, she explains. One study on patients receiving hemodialysis found that the group who received guided imagery experienced less anxiety and depression after the procedure compared with the control group.
When it comes to cancer treatment, research found that listening to guided imagery for 20 minutes per day for one week decreased anxiety and depression, as well as improved pain, insomnia, appetite, and nausea more so than a control group in people undergoing chemotherapy for different cancers. Earlier research on people undergoing treatment for breast or prostate cancer also found that guided imagery improved pain management better than controls.
If you’re new to guided imagery, your hospital or center may have a nurse who can help bring you to a calming place through visualization. If you receive treatment regularly, consult your physician to see if using guided imagery audio while at the hospital or doctor’s office is an option.
5. May Boost Performance
Athletes, performers, and even people nervous when speaking in public may use visualization to improve their abilities on the field or stage. Outside of special events, people can use guided imagery for the activities they have planned that day to enhance motivation, according to research. Compared with control groups (who were given activity reminders or nothing at all), those who practiced a technique called guided motivational imagery said that they had more motivation and expected to have more pleasure and reward in anticipation of both enjoyable and routine activities. The authors call mental imagery a “motivational amplifier,” as the tool boosted the belief that they would experience positive emotions while doing each activity, which in turn improved motivation.
Another finding? The more vivid your imagination, the stronger the effects. Day-dreaming is believing.