Guided imagery is a complementary therapy that can be a powerful technique to use with clients who have problems articulating their inner world with words alone.
Guided imagery is commonly used in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Hackmann et al., 2011), some mindfulness-based third-wave behavioral therapies (Bedford, 2012), as a psychological intervention that helps to manage pain (Carpenter et al., 2017; Ilacqua, 1994), and as a complementary therapy during cancer treatment (Mahdizadeh et al., 2019).
Guided imagery is also used by sports psychologists (Ahsen, 2001) and business coaches (Vasquez & Buehler, 2007) to help clients focus and achieve their goals.
This article examines the science behind guided imagery and why it works, plus introduces the best techniques, guided imagery scripts, apps, videos, and books on the subject. We will also outline some of the training courses available.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will provide you with detailed insight into positive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and give you the tools to apply it in your therapy or coaching.
This Article Contains:
- Behind Guided Imagery, CBT, & Mindfulness
- How Does Guided Imagery Work?
- 3 Techniques for Your Therapy Session
- 17 Best Imagery and Meditation Scripts
- 3 Visualization Activities and Exercises
- Relaxing Audio, Music, Apps, and Videos
- Training in Guided Imagery: 3 Courses
- 3 Fascinating Guided Imagery Books
- Resources From PositivePsychology.com
- A Take-Home Message
Behind Guided Imagery, CBT, & Mindfulness
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is a therapeutic intervention that combines cognitive and behavioral approaches designed by Aaron Beck in the late 1960s.
Imagery was always relevant to CBT, given that many of our thoughts and feelings are accompanied by internal images. These include those referring to the past, such as rumination on loss that can lead to depression, and those referring to anticipated failure or rejection that often generate anxiety.
CBT challenges dysfunctional patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior by using cognitive restructuring strategies that lead to behavioral change. Challenging the internal imagery that blocks behavioral change can be achieved using guided imagery techniques to restructure imagery and rescript inner scenarios that often play out when clients face challenges, compulsions, or fears.
In the preface to the Oxford Guide to Imagery in Cognitive Therapy (Hackmann et al., 2011, p. xxv), Beck writes, “developing a cognitive theory of psychopathology initially relied on my patients’ ability to share their inner cognitions; a process that was significantly aided by imagery. In this sense, imagery contributed to the evolution of cognitive therapy theory and practice.”
Some contemporary examples of how guided imagery is used in CBT include:
- Cognitive restructuring
For symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), like flashbacks, cognitive restructuring inserts new and incompatible images into post-traumatic memories (Grey et al., 2002).
- Imagery rescripting
Imagery rescripting is commonly used to treat symptoms of PTSD, including flashbacks and nightmares (Arntz & Weertman, 1999; Smucker et al., 1995).
There is also evidence that it can enhance positive mood states and overcome depression (Holmes et al., 2006; Wheatley et al., 2007).
- Imaginal desensitization
This technique has the client imagine a feared stimulus until they habituate to it. This is used to treat phobias (Wolpe, 1958).
- Imaginal flooding
Another method for overcoming phobias and social anxiety is where a feared stimulus is repeatedly presented through imagery without reinforcement or any counterconditioning process (Stampfl & Levis, 1967).
The third-wave behavioral therapies combined mindfulness with CBT techniques to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. Often, the mindfulness components of third-wave therapies use imagery to decenter from identification with thoughts and feelings that prevent behavioral change.
Examples include the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) “thoughts are like” exercise, available in this free worksheet, which deploys a lot of visual metaphors as images to facilitate cognitive defusion. The ACT approach understands how internal imagery often traps us in inner scripts that block behavioral change. ACT uses a combination of imagery and linguistic rescripting to support value-driven action.
How Does Guided Imagery Work?
Guided imagery works by using the imagination to stimulate all five sensory channels in addition to inner self-talk, often using affirmations.
It works because our brain and related neurophysiology find it almost impossible to distinguish between imagined experience and reality, such that we often respond to our imagination as strongly as if it were really happening (De Paolis et al., 2019).
For example, our brain responds when we imagine potential failure or rejection by flooding us with anxiety, which results in unpleasant symptoms like breathlessness, a racing heart, a dry mouth, and sweating as if the threat were very real.
In the same way, guided imagery mobilizes the power of our imagination to produce positive mind–body effects (Felix et al., 2018). Due to the brain’s neuroplasticity, guided imagery can be used to carve out new neural pathways that literally rewire our brains to experience the world differently (Edwards, 2007).
In short, guided imagery is a multi-sensory visualization intervention that can be a useful form of self-help or used with therapy, counseling, and coaching clients to overcome a range of life and health challenges (Utay & Miller, 2006).
3 Techniques for Your Therapy Session
Make use of any of these practical techniques during your next session.
1. Guided affective imagery
This involves working with spontaneous imagery generated by the client and facilitated by the therapist. First, the therapist asks the client to lie on a couch and takes them through a relaxation exercise. Then, the therapist suggests an imagery theme, such as walking up a mountain, across a meadow, or a beach, then asks the client to describe that journey in terms of the spontaneous images that arise.
This technique can be especially helpful for clients who have trouble staying in touch with their feelings or expressing them in relation to actual life events. It can help a client develop greater self-awareness.
The technique is described in detail in this free download of a lecture given at the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute, at Princeton, by Dr. Hanscarl Leuner. It is also described in the book Guided Imagery: Creative Interventions in Counselling & Psychotherapy, which we describe below.
2. Scripted guided imagery
Here, the therapist works as a guide to a client with a predetermined script. This can be more useful in group therapy or personal development workshops – or with clients who may be reluctant to voice their imagery aloud.
It begins with a relaxation technique and then leads the group through an imaginary journey using a script. Some examples are provided below. The scripts are often designed to help clients process overcoming a challenge or problem at the subconscious level using symbolism and multi-sensory visualization.
3. Imagery and drawing
This is something of an expressive arts technique with roots in art therapy. It involves working with spontaneous imagery that arises during therapy by suggesting the client draw the image they are describing, which helps them articulate their inner world multidimensionally.
It can be useful for working with trauma recovery, as often trauma overwhelms the capacity for linguistic representation and verbal articulation, yet can often be more easily expressed in terms of color, shape, and expressive images.
17 Best Imagery and Meditation Scripts
Guided imagery is used in a range of meditation techniques with ancient roots.
We have many resources available on our blog that you can download for free.
The short practice scripts linked below have roots in the Buddhist Brahma Viharas, four practices that use visualization to generate positive emotional states in ourselves and toward others, including loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy or gratitude, and equanimity.
First, try out the four short loving-kindness meditation scripts included in our Loving-Kindness Meditation article.
Next, try out these compassion meditation scripts in our What Is Compassion Meditation? article.
Our Guided Gratitude Meditation article provides eight scripts. If eight is too many, the original longer version published by Guiding Light is the first practice that mobilizes all your imagination through the five senses to generate a sense of gratitude and appreciative joy.
2 Guided imagery for anxiety scripts
Guided imagery is an especially potent intervention that can quickly soothe anxiety. You should begin each script with a breath awareness exercise to relax and settle people.
1. A Calm Place
Adapted from Mindful Living Counseling, Orlando, Florida.
“Bring to mind a place that you have either been or would like to go to that is very peaceful and very calm. Often, people pick a place in nature … somewhere that you would either like to go or that you have been that feels settling and calming. When this place is clear in your mind’s eye, fire up your five senses, and in your mind’s eye, look around this place and see the landscape. See the colors, the textures. Notice if the sun is shining or if it is shady, becoming aware of what you would see as you look around.
Next, bring awareness to the sounds you would hear … the sounds that are close up and the sounds that you would hear at a distance. Take in any scents and smells that are in this calming place.
Next, I’d like you to take a moment and imagine what this place would feel like on your skin. Are you in the sunlight? Or shade? Is it warm, humid? Or is it cool and brisk? Is it windy? So just take a moment to imagine what it would feel like to be in this place.
And now, I’d like you to just take another moment to absorb anything else that feels particularly calming and soothing from this calm place.
And we’ll close this practice with three soothing inhales and exhales.”
2. The Beach
The Beach was prepared by Dr. Prentiss Price of the Counseling and Career Development Center at Georgia Southern University. This is a little like the script above but is a free pdf that is richly descriptive and ready to go.
3 Visualization Activities and Exercises
Here we provide you with three exercises, including a video, for your guided visualization.
1. Creative visualization: A four-step formula
Hypnotherapist and coach Paul Thomas (n.d.) explains the areas where creative visualization can help you meet your goals.
Thomas offers a free guide to creating your own visualizations on his website using a four-stage formula:
Step 1: Relax body and mind.
Step 2: Visualize yourself on a movie screen (disassociated).
Step 3: Visualize through your own eyes (associated).
Step 4: Multiply and integrate the visualization.
He introduces the formula in detail in the video below.
2. Mental rehearsal
Mental rehearsal is a short multi-sensory visualization exercise that you can use to reactivate more detailed visualization practices ‘on the job.’ For example, athletes often practice detailed visualizations using a formula much like the one above and mental rehearsals before a performance or game (Di Rienzo et al. 2016). They may use mental rehearsal in breaks during a game or competition on the field.
An article by Brett Steenbarger (2018) in Forbes describes how it can be used by traders during high-stakes market changes to keep calm while tuning into their intuition and skills while taking risks. It can also be useful for students to use before exams or tests and for all kinds of performance-related anxieties (Natraj & Ganguly, 2018).
3. Repetitive exposure
You can try this repetitive exposure technique for any goal, from overcoming a health challenge to learning a new skill. Repeatedly exposing yourself to visual or multi-sensory stimuli related to your specific goals can help make them more real to you.
This technique can also be used to rescript imagined negative outcomes for those suffering from phobias or social anxiety, as described in the section on CBT above (Grey et al., 2002; Smucker et al., 1995; Wheatley et al., 2007).
Repetitive exposure can be a useful self-help tool. For example, perhaps there’s something you really want to do but fear taking the plunge. Look for videos about people who have already achieved what you want to do.
You could also watch documentaries about those who have achieved your desired life goal. Read other people’s accounts of overcoming obstacles to achieving the same goal. Talk to people who have already done so. This will help to make it more real for you.
Relaxing Audio, Music, Apps, and Videos
1. Guided imagery podcasts
The University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center offers podcasts focused on using guided imagery to manage stress and encourage relaxation during cancer treatment. However, these free podcasts can be used as a standalone relaxation resource for anybody.
2. Take 5: The Forest Awakens
The University of Minnesota’s Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing offers a range of free guided relaxations and meditations on their YouTube channel.
Try Take 5, which combines music, visuals, and nature sounds to relax and destress.
3. Guided meditation apps
Meditation Oasis offers a range of guided meditation apps. Try the Simply Being app, which uses voice, music, and nature sounds to help you relax. If you just want natural sounds and vocal guided meditation, you can switch off the music. If you do not want to hear the voice, you can relax to music and/or nature sounds.
The Wellscapes app, available on the Apple App Store, is also offered for free by the University of Minnesota.
For videos that use guided imagery for relaxation, try the Honest Guys’ YouTube channel. They offer many video resources including guided meditations for free.
Training in Guided Imagery: 3 Courses
Most guided imagery trainings are aimed at applicants with a core profession, such as previously qualified health professionals and coaches. The following three options offer continuing professional development workshops and professional certifications.
1. Imagery International
Imagery International presents a range of workshops and webinars on guided imagery that offer useful introductions to many of the approaches and techniques described above.
2. The Academy of Guided Imagery
Training in interactive guided imagery (IGI) is offered by the Academy of Guided Imagery. This training recognizes the therapeutic value of imagination in relationships.
3. Center for Healing and Imagery
Training in somatic imagery is offered by the Center for Healing and Imagery (n.d.) and aims to mobilize the full power of the imagination by “sending healing messages to the body and resolving psychological conflicts rooted in early experiences.”
IGI is one component of somatic imagery training.
3 Fascinating Guided Imagery Books
For even more information and research on this fascination topic, we urge you to make use of these excellent reading resources, to guide you further on the path.
1. The Beginners Handbook to the Art of Guided Imagery – Virginia Thompson
If you’re a helping professional new to guided imagery and would like to know how to devise your own guided imagery scripts, try The Beginners Handbook to the Art of Guided Imagery: A Professional and Personal Step-by-Step Guide to Developing and Implementing Guided Imagery.
The author is a registered nurse and spiritual teacher who specializes in addiction recovery.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Guided Imagery: Creative Interventions in Counselling & Psychotherapy – Eric Hall, Carol Hall, Pamela Stradling, and Diane Young
If you’re a practicing therapist or counselor interested in incorporating guided imagery into your work, take a look at this book.
The book begins with a detailed history of the use of guided imagery for healing before providing a chapter on each of the different approaches to using guided imagery, replete with practical case study examples.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. The Healing Waterfall: 100 Guided Imagery Scripts for Counselors, Healers & Clergy – Max Highstein
Finally, if you’re a helping professional who would like to have a resource of ready-made guided imagery scripts for a range of life challenges and health problems, then look at this book by musician and counselor Max Highstein.
The author has also composed an array of guided imagery audio resources using his own music.
Find the book on Amazon.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
If you’d like to try one of our guided imagery resources for yourself, download our free three Positive CBT Exercises Pack and take a look at the Solution-Focused Guided Imagery exercise.
We also have free worksheets that use visualization and imagery in the following areas:
Visualizing to Improve Unconditional Positive Regard is an exercise that uses imagery to cultivate empathy.
Visualizing Future Events to Build Authenticity is an exercise that uses imagery to develop authenticity and become the person you’d like to be in your relationships with others.
Career Visualization uses imagery to visualize yourself getting ahead in your career or in the job, role, or profession that you really want.
In addition, we have many more resources available in our Positive Psychology Toolkit©, including the Goals Vision Board, which is a tool that uses visualization to help clients focus on a range of life goals and create the conditions that will lead to their achievement.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others through CBT, check out this collection of 17 validated positive CBT tools for practitioners. Use them to help others overcome unhelpful thoughts and feelings and develop more positive behaviors.
A Take-Home Message
Guided imagery is increasingly recognized as a powerful therapeutic intervention with a robust evidence base in contemporary neuroscience.
Given that we now understand how imagined experience carves out neural pathways in the brain in the same way as real experience, this means positive imagery and multi-sensory visualization can be used to carve out new neural pathways that can help clients overcome debilitating conditions such as trauma, phobias, anxiety, and depression to help them heal and achieve their goals.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free.
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