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USING GUIDED IMAGERY TO EASE THE PAIN OF CHILDBIRTH
In Health Therapy, Relaxation, & Seeking Knowledge
WHAT IS GUIDED IMAGERY?
Guided imagery is the conscious use of the imagination and the mind to create positive images ("healing visualizations") or a setting in order to bring about healthful changes in both the body and the mind. It has many utilizations. Creating mental images is nothing new for most people. Everyone has daydreams, perhaps of a set of new clothes or of winning the lottery. Guided imagery takes this natural process a step further. Most people most likely use it without even realizing they are doing it. By working with your midwife, a doula, a trained therapist, or using special audiotapes, you can learn to communicate more effectively with your unconscious mind, requesting that your body function in an optimal and healthy way.
The early stage of labor can be difficult for a birthing mother. She may not be sure that she is experiencing real labor. Or her contractions might be mild and spaced out, but the anticipation of what is ahead may prevent her from getting rest before more difficult labor begins. A midwife, a doula, or anyone else experienced with guided imagery can verbally guide her mind to an image of her unborn baby, sleeping and floating inside of her, while the mother gently strokes her own abdomen.
The belief that the power of imagination can help people heal has ancient roots. Traditional folk healers known as shamans used guided imagery to treat ailments. In Eastern medicine, envisioning well-being has always been an important part of the therapeutic process. In Tibetan medicine in particular, creating a mental image of the healing god would improve the patient's chances for recovery. The ancient Greeks, including Aristotle and Hippocrates (father of modern medicine) also had their patients use forms of imagery to help them heal.
It was not until the 1960s, however, that psychologists exploring the emerging field of biofeedback first began to appreciate the powers of the mind on the physical body. Through biofeedback, they could teach patients to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, or open lungs stricken with asthma. Then, in the 1970s, O. Carl Simonton, M.D., chief of Radiation Therapy at Travis Air Force base in Fairfield, California, and psychotherapist Stephanie Matthews-Simonson, devised a program - today known as the Simonton method - that utilized guided imagery to help his cancer patients. The patients pictured their white blood cells attacking their cancer cells (sometimes in scenes that resembled the popular video game "Pac-Man"). Simonton found that the more vivid the images his patients used (for example, ravenous sharks attacking feeble little fish), the better the process worked.
Since then, a good deal of research into mind-body connections has appeared in mainstream medical literature. And while many conventional physicians remain skeptical that the mind has an actual physical effect on the reversal of an illness, guided imagery (often conducted by psychiatrists or psychologists) is now used in many medical inpatient and outpatient programs throughout the world. Furthermore, many holistically oriented psychologists and other counselors routinely employ guided imagery for stress reduction, smoking cessation, weight reduction, immune stimulation, and the relief of both physical and emotional illness.
HOW DOES GUIDED IMAGERY WORK?
Practitioners say that guided imagery works because, in terms of brain activity, picturing something and actually experiencing it are equivalent. Brain scans have verified that this is the case. Stimulating the brain with imagery can have a direct effect on the nervous and endocrine systems and can ultimately affect the immune system as well. If you picture yourself luxuriating at the beach on a tropical island, your muscles will actually relax and your skin will feel the warmth of the sun's rays. Likewise, if you imagine yourself recuperating quickly and effortlessly from gallbladder surgery, you are more likely to heal faster and with less pain.
The brain's visual cortex, which processes images, has a powerful connection with the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary activities such as pulse, breathing, and physical responses to stress. Soothing, uplifting images can actually slow your pulse and breathing and lower your blood pressure, as well as help trigger the release of hormones such as endorphins, which make you feel good and nurture your body's restorative powers.
WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT FROM GUIDED IMAGERY
Although you can learn guided imagery techniques on your own from books, it is best to work with a midwife, doula, or other health care practitioner or purchase an audiotape dealing with the issue important to you. If you're a creative individual, you can write your own guided imagery script, read it onto a tape, and then use the tape as your guiding tool. If you work with a practitioner, it will probably take only a couple of sessions to learn a technique that works well for you. The sessions may be as short as 30 minutes or as long as 90 minutes. It will speed the process considerably if your practitioner allows you to tape the session for home use.
During the first session, the practitioner (who may also be a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, or psychologist) will take your medical history and ask you why you want to use guided imagery. The practitioner will probably ask you questions about your favorite vacation spots and times of year, and about experiences that have made you feel confident and secure. Your answers will help you and the practitioner develop images that make you feel good.
Next, the practitioner will ask you to lie on a couch or sit in a chair. You will want to wear comfortable clothing and may want to take off your shoes. Before beginning, be sure you are warm enough or cool enough, and that pillows support you in a comfortable desired position. You can have soft, sustained music playing in the background, maybe one with ocean sounds, if you want to do the ocean visualization recommended below. The music should be soft enough to hear your own breathing. Once you are settled in, the practitioner will guide you through a visualization exercise, using all five senses and perhaps focusing on a special place where you usually feel happy and peaceful. The suggestions could be spoken in a low, soft tone, with long pauses. The pauses allow you frame the image, relate it to yourself, and then to experience the sensations of that image. The practitioner may suggest some ideas, but will leave most of the imagining up to you. The best images are the ones you conjure up yourself because they will have personal meaning for you. The amount of touch involved depends entirely on the individual situation. It is possible that the midwife or doula may not touch the mother at all, or that her birth partner may be holding her hand or stroking her lightly, in concert with her breathing pattern.
With practice, you will be able to bring up healing images quickly - anytime, anywhere. You will be able to use guided imagery to help yourself relax during stressful moments, such as being in labor, as well as to treat a particular health problem.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF GUIDED IMAGERY
While there is no scientific evidence indicating that guided imagery by itself helps to heal disease, this technique has been shown to promote relaxation and to improve quality of life. It is especially useful for conditions that are made worse by stress, such as high blood pressure, pain, and headache, as well as stress and anxiety themselves. It may also help certain eating disorders.
In a 1997 study at the University of Miami, researchers found that guided imagery helped elevate mood and decrease stress. The participants rated their moods before and after practicing guided imagery and had their blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol measured. The subjects who used guided imagery reported a significant decrease in depression, fatigue, and total mood disturbance, and measured significant decreases in cortisol, as compared to the control group.
Imagery has been successfully tested as a strategy for relieving nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy in cancer patients, and it has also been found to relieve stress and promote weight gain in those with cancer. Patients using the Simonton Method have successfully used guided imagery as an adjunct therapy to conventional cancer treatments to mobilize their immune systems.
Other studies have shown that guided imagery is particularly helpful for patients preparing for and recovering from surgery. A 1996 study at the Cleveland Clinic showed that patients who used guided imagery prior to colorectal surgery had less anxiety before and less pain after the surgery than did the control group. The members of the guided imagery group used 37 percent less pain medication, regained their bowel function sooner, and were released from the hospital an average of a day and a half earlier. Blue Shield of California has even begun to distribute guided imagery recordings to its members scheduled for major surgery in the hope that the practice will decrease surgical complications and the pain and anxiety associated with surgery.
Actors, athletes, and public speakers also use guided imagery to prepare for important events. They say that picturing themselves performing at top form helps them do their best in reality.
Another particularly good time for guided imagery is after a cesarean birth, while the mother is still in the recovery room. In most cases, the baby is not with her and she hasn't seen much of her newborn since the moment of birth. The father may be in the nursery with the baby or greeting family members. The mother has just had major surgery, probably unplanned, and has felt out of control of her birth for an hour or so. She may be feeling anxious, but needs to be in recovery for a while. A midwife or doula can guide her thoughts to a safe place, where she is holding her baby in her arms, its soft, warm head under her chin and little fingers enfolding her own finger. Although the theme of the imagery varies with the individual and the situation, it is easy to see that there are many ways to use this technique during pregnancy or birth. With a little thought, you may also find ways to use it in your personal life.
A favorite of many people is being at the ocean's edge. Not with hot summer afternoons with radios blaring and acres of beach towels, but a beach shore that is deserted or almost empty beach, when all of your senses are heightened and your mind can be free to remember and relax. It could be the empty space, the freedom and freshness of the air, or it could be a pre-birth memory of floating within your mother's body that makes this scene so relaxing. You can see the rhythmic motion of the waves and the sound of the surf gently slapping the sand on the beach. You may even be able to hear the sound of sea gulls off in a distance and the feel of a warm and gentle breeze on your face. You may be able to smell the salt in the air and feel the squishy sand beneath your feet. The more senses you can put into your visualization, the more effective it will be. You may find that all of these sensations are positive and soothing, even cathartic at times... a pleasurable formula for relaxation. This peaceful state reduces the body's production of adrenaline, the chemical that surges through us when we are fearful, excited or upset. It increases the body's production of endorphins, which contribute to a feeling of pleasure or security. Certainly there are times when we need the effects endorphins create.
HOW TO CHOOSE A PRACTITIONER FOR GUIDED IMAGERY
There is no certification or licensing for practitioners of guided imagery, although many professionals who practice it are licensed in other areas of health care, such as psychiatry and psychology. Many psychotherapists, nurses, physical therapists, and hypnotists also offer guided imagery training. For birthing mothers, your midwife or a doula may be able to provide guided imagery as part of their pregnancy and labor-birth practice. The best way to find a reputable practitioner is to seek referrals from your midwife, health care provider, and friends you trust. Ask for references, if you feel that you need them, and check them. Be sure you feel comfortable with a practitioner's style before you begin to work together.
If you would rather learn guided imagery on your own, look for a class at a local community college, clinic, hospital, wellness center, or community center. Guided imagery tapes that help visualization are also widely available.
CAUTIONS FOR USING GUIDED IMAGERY
Guided imagery generally is a safe and enjoyable experience for everyone, from children to the elderly. However, people who suffer from some form of mental illness, particularly people who are prone to hallucinations, should discuss the process in advance with a trained therapist. If you ever experience disturbing images or memories during a session, you may also wish to discuss the experience with a trained therapist.
Choose images that are pleasant to you. If you know in advance that an image may be disturbing, let your practitioner know. If you are participating in a group session, feel free to sit out the exercise.
GUIDED IMAGERY TECHNIQUE TIPS
Guided Imagery is a convenient and simple relaxation technique that can help you quickly and easily manage stress, reduce tension, and achieve balance and health in your body. It's virtually as easy as indulging in a vivid daydream and, with practice, this technique can help you to better access your inner wisdom. Here is how to get started with guided imagery:
Time Required: 10-15 Minutes
Get into a comfortable position, like one you would use for meditation or self-hypnosis. If a lying-down position would likely put you to sleep, opt for a cross-legged position, or recline in a comfy chair. Use diaphragmic deep breathing and close your eyes, focusing on breathing in peace and breathing out stress. Once you get to a relaxed state, begin to envision yourself in the midst of the most relaxing environment you can imagine. For some, this would be floating in the cool, clear waters off of a remote tropical island, where attractive people bring drinks and smooth music plays in the background. For others, this might be sitting by a fire in a secluded snow cabin, deep in the woods, sipping hot cocoa and reading the latest novel of your choice while wrapped in a plush blanket and fuzzy slippers or another visualization suggestion could be you laying in the soft green grass next to a secluded water fall and pond under the shaded trees, surrounded by lush greenery - the day is comfortably warm with the sun filtering down and glistening off the water ripples, the aroma of sweet scented flowers and the sound of birds chirping in the trees and water splashing from the waterfall, an occasional butterfly flitting by and landing on a nearby flower. The more you can visualize, the more real it can be.
As you imagine your scene, try to involve all of your senses. What does it look like? How does it feel? What special scents are involved? Do you hear the roar of a fire, the splash of a waterfall, or the sounds of chirping birds? Make your vision so real you can even taste it!
Stay here for as long as you like. Enjoy your 'surroundings', and let yourself be far from what stresses you. When you are ready to come back to reality, count back from ten or twenty, and tell yourself that when you get to 'one', you will feel serene and alert, and enjoy the rest of your day. When you return, you will feel more calm and refreshed, like returning from a mini-vacation, but you won't have left the room!
GUIDED IMAGERY TIPS:
You may want to use ambient sounds that compliment your imagery. This may be soft classical music or nature sounds (whales, water, ocean, birds, etc.) or a combination of both. I have one that has music with wolves and when I play it I can visualize me running and howling with a pack of playful wolves to the tempo of the classical music. Another is music with ocean surf noises, sounds of seagulls and an occasional fog horn faint in the background allowing me to visualize myself on a secluded sandy beach. Simple classical music has always made me able to have visions in my head as I close my eyes and go with the flow and tempo of the music being played. I am especially fond of Mozart. By using soft ambient sound, you may feel more immersed in your 'imaged environment', plus the sounds of real life will be obscured.
If you are short on time or on a tight schedule, you may want to set an alarm just in case you lose track of time or fall asleep. I suggest you use a soft alarm and not something that will loudly clang, beep, or chime, making you jump and become startled. This way, you will be more able to relax and let go, knowing that your schedule won't be in jeopardy.
As you get more practiced, you will be able to go more deeply and quickly. You may also want to communicate with your subconscious mind, with the help of a tape you record for yourself or purchase, or a therapist.
Be sure to try to eliminate as many environmental distractions as possible. Turn off the television, unplug the phone, be alone without kids, pets and companions. Find a quiet place to practice your imagery, if possible. Headphones may help (with or without music) to eliminate outside sounds such as street noise, sirens, trains, cars, kids, and other environmental noise.
What You Need:
Some quiet time. Some privacy. An (soft-sound) alarm clock, perhaps.
SOME IDEAS FOR GUIDED IMAGERY
Here are some of my favorite guided imagery scenes that I have used for relaxation:
- THE OCEAN BEACH. I am usually sitting in the sand, and feeling the warmth of the sun on my face. Warm, gritty, squishy sand under my feet and between my toes. The sound of the surf hitting the shoreline and the distant seagulls calling out their bird cries. The vision of the waves moving up and down as they slowly move into the shore and the glistening of the sun, dancing on the water, in a hypnotic rhythm. The smell and taste of the salty air in my nose on my tongue. I can feel the cooler air coming off the water and a gentle warm aromatic breeze against my face. I feel warm, and relaxed. Serenity engulfs me.
- THE OCEAN BEACH WITH THE MOON. Instead of the sun, I visualize moonlight dancing on the dark water and a big, full, rising moon on the horizon. The sand is warm against my feet and body as I lay back relaxed. The stars twinkle in the sky and the cool, gentle breeze, smelling of the ocean is around me. I feel I am a part of all things in the universe. I am relaxed. Serenity engulfs me.
- A TROPICAL WATERFALL IN A LAGOON OR A POOL OF WATER. Feeling the warmth of a gentle breeze on my skin, Cool green moss beneath my feet. The feel of the waterfall spray gently touching my skin. The sound of the water as it falls off the rocks ledge, a gentle rushing sound and the distant sound of birds in the trees calling back and forth to each other. The smell of the fresh water, the green foliage, and the mild perfumed tropical flowers growing around the pool. The vision of the sun or the full moon shining on the gently moving waves on the water from the fall. A foggy, mystical mist gently floating around the falling water and in the background. If visualizing sun, you can visualize colorful fish swimming in the water below your feet, sunlight dancing off their colorful backsides. I may have my feet on the green moss on shore or dangling into the water. I am relaxed. Serenity engulfs me.
- CLOUD BOUNCING. I like to visualize myself flying with my astral body while leaving my heavy, earth-bound body behind me. I become just like a soaring bird or dragon in my case, since I am very partial to dragons. I sometimes visualize myself as a flying human or sometimes as a dragon in flight. I sometimes am riding on the back of my dragon while we are both soaring through the clouds). My arms are outstretched like motionless wings. It is comfortably warm around me like the first warm day in spring with the sun (or full moon) above me. I can feel the air rushing across my face and the gentle coolness against my skin. The clouds below me appear as big, soft, fluffy puffs of cotton, ever changing, white shapes and glistening from the sun or the full moon, depending on if it is day or night. I feel the weightlessness of my body as it floats through the air and the freedom of flying without any hindrances. I am alone with the clouds, the quiet and I am peaceful. Occasionally as the clouds break up here and there, I can see the green of lush valleys and the glistening of lakes, rivers, and maybe the ocean with sparks of light flashing off the waves. I can hear and feel the rush of the wind when I go faster and less when I barely hover. I may be able to hear flocks of geese or other birds below me as they fly by. Mostly it the beautiful sound of silence that I enjoy the most. Becoming one with the clouds, the sky and the air. I am free from all worries, hindrances, and bindings. I am a creature of the air.
- UNDERWATER GLIDING. Visualizing myself underwater, able to breathe like the fish, floating, watching the waving seaweed, coral, or animal life. Seeing schools of fish gently swim by. Looking down at the depths below me, seeing the rocks, animals, sunken ships and anything else I can imagine. Looking through the rippling water currents produces a hazy and mysterious view. I can taste and smell the saltiness and/or coolness of the water in which I float and gently swim. I feel like a mermaid or merperson floating and gliding effortlessly through the water. I float along, weightless, without any worries or cares.
- STAR BOUNCING. This is similar to the cloud bouncing in that I am flying, but I am not confined to the Earth and any particular planet. Here I am in outer space, gently gliding, weightless, passing planets of all sizes and colors, asteroids, suns and stars. Gliding through space and galaxies of all shapes, sizes, and colors, just to see and feel what is there. My skin feels comfortably cool when in space and gently warm when I pass by suns. This one is more just the floating and feeling free that attracts me as one of the visuals I can create.
FOR MY PREGNANCIES AND LABORS IN CHILDBIRTH, I USED THIS ONE:
- I would visualize myself being inside my uterus as a small "traveler". I could see my baby as he would put his thumb to his mouth, kick his foot. I feel the warmness of the amniotic fluid, comfortable and peacefully protective. I could see the blood pulse through his umbilical cord. This was like floating in an inner space, an internal ocean. I could see the white silkiness of the amniotic bag and taste the ocean-like saltiness of the amniotic fluid. I could see small particles floating in the amniotic fluid like small creatures floating in the ocean, and the very faint light from outside of my belly glowing in with a reddish hue. I can hear the drum-like rhythmic beating of the heart, his and mine going boom..boom, mine being the louder and slower of the two beats. I can hear the gurgling of the intestines and faint, muffled sounds of external noises outside of the womb, such as music or someone talking. If I am in labor, I could feel the pressure of the tightening womb on myself and my baby. Gently pushing him down. I see my cervix opening up a little more with each surge of power from my uterus. I see the baby moving and finding a comfortable position for him to be in when the surges come on. As the cervix opens fully, I visualize my baby moving down, slowly but firmly down the narrow tube known as the vagina and out into the world of mortality to be greeted with great enthusiasm and joy.
WHEN I AM DOING A RITUAL FOR SEEKING KNOWLEDGE - I WILL USE THIS ONE OR A VARIATION OF IT:
- I visualize myself standing in a green meadow. If it is daylight, I see a warm sunshine glistening down across the landscape, dancing on the trees on the edge of the meadow and the green grass of the meadow. I see beautiful wild flowers scattered about my feet and honey bees and butterflies flitting from flower to flower gathering nectar. I smell the fragrant aroma of the flowers and the green grass. I feel the soft breeze against my skin. I hear birds in the trees chirping to each other and the buzz of the bees as they work. Off in the distance I see a gateway on the edge of the meadow. It is an ancient stone wall with a curved archway doorway. It has ivy and fragrant flowers growing up the sides and over the top of the curved archway. There is an old wooden gate with very large ring knockers that are shaped in the heads of dragons. There are iron fixtures, ornate and beautifully designed decorating the wooden gate door. I reach the door and I grasp the door ring with my hand. I feel the warmth of the metal against my skin as I grasp the ring. I push ever so slightly and the gate door swings open.
I see a beautiful garden on the inside of the gateway. It is a magickal place. I see fairy-like creatures with fluttering wings dancing among the flowers, trees and shrubbery. They glisten with a light of their own, but their wings also pick up the radiance of the sunlight. I walk through the garden on a well tread stone pathway. This pathway leads into an ancient carved structure on the side of the mountain. It has carved figures in the shapes of the gods and goddesses of ancient times. I see ancient magickal symbols over the opening of the doorway. I step through the doorway and enter the underground dwelling.
It is cool inside and the light is dimmer. There are stone and metal sconces around the perimeter of the large room with warm dancing fire providing light in the dim room. It makes the room appear a warm yellowish red in color. There are more carvings of deities and swords and shields decorating the inside of the room. I see old tapestries of ancient battle scenes, festival scenes, and nature scenes of long ago decorating the walls. Across the room, I see a large ornate table with large candles burning. I smell the gentle aroma of incense and candlewax in the air.
As I approach the table, a voice calls out to me using my magickal name. It is deep and welcoming as I approach. It will ask me what I seek. I will answer with my request. I respectfully stop and I see the face of an ancient guardian dragon. She is glorious with her wings folded to her sides and her tail curved around her enormous body. I see the muscles underneath her armor-plated skin ripple as she moves ever so slightly. I see her scales glistening in the candlelight, reflecting little bits of colorful light around the room like sunlight shining through a crystal. She welcomes me and bids me to come forward toward her and the table. I politely and respectfully bow and proceed toward the table.
On the table I see a large bound book. It is beautifully crafted with gemstones, silver and gold on the binding. The she-dragon extends her glistening, taloned "hand" and opens the book. She bids me to read and to remember the knowledge within the book. I gather the information I seek from the book. She answers my questions that I may have with a deep, gentle voice. When I am finished. I thank her and bow.
We bid farewell to one another and we part. I travel back across the room, out the doorway of the ancient structure, back through the garden and through the ancient gateway into the meadow. I return back to my physical form and to my physical realm once again. A little wiser and with the knowledge that I was seeking.
IF YOU HAVE A HEALTH PROBLEM, SUCH AS CANCER, YOU MAY TRY SOMETHING LINK THIS:
- Visualize your body and the cancer cells that are invading your body. Now visualize your body producing cancer eating cells, maybe in the shape of the little round "pack-man" eaters that eat the cancer cells one by one, making your body stronger with every cancer cell that they consume. Let these cancer "packman" eat as many as you can. Repeat this visualization several times a day, a week or as often as you can, until you have them eat all your cancer cells up in your mind. Visualize yourself getting stronger and feeling better with every session. Make these little "pack-man" cell eaters your body's guardians for any continued cancer cell growth. Use it as often as you feel necessary.
You can make your guided imagery as elaborate or as simple as it takes to achieve the purpose. You can use whatever imagery that works for you and make it comfortable for your needs. Your imagination is all it takes. The more you put into it, the more you will receive in return. Guided imagery should not take the place of conventional or alternative medical treatment in the event of psychological or physical health problems. It should be used in addition to treatment received.
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