Photo of woman in nature.

Guided Imagery: What It Is and How to Use It

In Education, Mindfulness & Meditation, Self-Care by Courtney ArcherLeave a Comment

Guided imagery is a great way to distract from your current setting and problems. Not only is it an escape, but it is an escape wherein you control the timing. You can dedicate whatever amount of time you have to it.

Guided imagery is also wonderful because it puts our natural skill of distraction to good use. As discussed in LtD’s article, What is Self-Care? distraction can quickly become avoidance if we let it. However, it is a lot harder to do that with guided imagery.

Because of the way that guided imagery works, you are in complete control. It is all about your imagination, where it can take you, and the ways it can soothe you. We all use our imaginations every day, whether for day-dreaming or for worrying.

Take control of the narrative for a moment and give yourself something else to think about. Whether you have two minutes or an hour, guided imagery can help you create a mental landscape you can retreat to when you need a break.

Picture of stone stack.

Photo by nicollazzi xiong from Pexels

What is Guided Imagery?

Guided imagery is a tool of mindfulness, which has been a proponent of Eastern mental health and spirituality for centuries. While it has come and gone from Western approaches to mental health, it is currently experiencing a resurgence.  You would be hard-pressed to find a mental health professional who does not know about it.

Not that all mental health professionals use or favor mindfulness, but pretty much everyone knows about it by now. Guided imagery is a facet of mindfulness but in a paradoxical kind of way.

Mindfulness is all about being fully part of the present moment–about being grounded and aware, and responding rather than reacting. Guided imagery is a way of being present, but in your imagination rather than in the present moment.

That is why it is a bit paradoxical. When you engage in guided imagery, you are using your senses as you would in a grounding exercise, but you are using imagined senses rather than literal senses.

Try it out for a moment. Imagine that you are eating a segment of lemon, as vividly as you can possibly imagine it. Imagine the way your taste buds prickle against the sour lemony flavor, the way your mouth salivates as you bite down into the pulpy fruit.

Did you actually begin to salivate? My bet is that you did, unless you have never eaten a lemon before. Even though you were not actually eating a lemon, the power of your imagination was strong enough to make you react as if you were. You experienced it.

You can use your imagination to experience more than just eating a lemon. So much more.

We use our imaginations all the time to catastrophize and worry about the future. Guided imagery is a great way to give yourself some relief from that. It uses your imagination to focus your thoughts on something that you want to focus on.

How is Guided Imagery Different than Guided Meditation?

Before you read that heading, did you even realize that guided imagery and guided meditation are two separate things? The two are often conflated with each other, but they are not the same. One is not better than the other, but rather each has its own purposes and usefulness.

Both are about slowing down and holding still for a moment. About being present with yourself and regaining some control of your inner narrative. But they utilize different functions to do so, and ultimately hit at different aspects of self-care while doing it.

Guided imagery utilizes distraction to address the need for a mental break. Guided meditation utilizes grounding and presence to address the need for acceptance. We all need both things at times.

That age old saying about how there is a time and season for everything applies here. There are times when you need to check in and times when you need to check out.

The truth is that all of us could probably use more of both. You can find guided meditations and guided imageries here at Lighten the Dark.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Now that you realize that guided meditation and imagery are actually two separate things, hold onto that, and also realize that they are two sides of the same coin. They are different–they really are–but there is a reason why they get confused for each other.

Guided meditation helps develop emotional and mental resilience in that it helps you be present with yourself. Common themes of guided meditation are acceptance, self-compassion, and kindness toward self and others. The guided meditation aspect of mindfulness is a commonly recommended intervention in clinics that address chronic pain because of the power it has to help people accept things that will not go away.

Guided imagery helps develop these same things (emotional and mental resilience) by allowing you to explore and get outside yourself. While the guided meditation approach to chronic pain is sitting with the pain and allowing it to be, the guided imagery approach is occupying your imagination with something completely different.

Are you beginning to see how the two are actually opposite sides of the same coin? Just as it is necessary to take care of business (which absolutely requires a measure of acceptance), it is also necessary to reinforce your inner sense of wonder and find some relief.

We all have things we struggle to accept that do not change no matter how much we struggle against them. Guided imagery and guided meditation help us to struggle less. When we struggle less, our burdens become easier.

They do not go away. Anyone with chronic pain, type 1 diabetes, or Crohn’s disease knows that these things are not going anywhere. But it is much easier to work with acceptance than to work with struggle.

I speak from a therapist’s perspective, and I speak from the perspective of someone who has type 1 diabetes. Trust me, I get that acceptance is far too simple a word for all the work it requires. But work is better than struggle.

Photo of a lily that could be inspiration for some guided imagery.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Is it for Me?

Alright, so guided imagery is a nice escape and acceptance is necessary, and all that hokey therapist drivel, but does it work? Is it for you?

If scraping some time out of your chaotic life to do some mindfulness sounds like an impossible feat, it may be just what you need. And good news–mindfulness does not have to take hours. It does not even have to take minutes.

When I need a moment of mental rest, all I have to do is imagine the feel of warm sidewalk against my bare feet. Add the dry, dusty feeling of sidewalk chalk against my fingers, and I am immediately calmer.

Sidewalk chalk and bare feet remind me of summer, freedom, creativity, and peace. It is a simple imagining, but it takes me to a different time and place when things were so much more effortless and smooth. Before life took quite so many unexpected turns and things became exponentially more complicated.

We all have memories like this–a time in our lives when things were easier. What is it for you? The more vivid you can remember, the more real you can re-imagine it, the more useful it is going to be for you.

Guided imagery is for everyone. If you are a runner, always going from place to place without taking a second to catch your breath, guided imagery is for you.

If you are a perpetual daydreamer with your head in the clouds, guided imagery could easily be just what you need to give your imaginings some direction and purpose.

What if I am a Runner?

Of course, we are talking about a mental runner here. Actually, people who regularly run physically might have a leg up on mindfulness because there are not a lot of opportunities for distraction while running. If running is your thing, at some point you became okay with a little physical and mental suffering here and there.

A mental runner is someone whose thoughts are always going, whether it is from a sense of drive or a sense of fear. Mental runners spend a lot of time in their heads, always going from one thing to the next.

If you are a person who is always running mentally, you might think that guided meditation is absolutely not for you. But as a person who never stops, a pause and a breath is exactly what you need.

Physical running is a great metaphor for this. If you tried running nonstop, eventually your body would just stop complying. At some point, you would not be able to go anymore even if you wanted to.

For some reason, it is alright to admit to physical exhaustion but not to mental exhaustion. The thing is, in order to ease your mental exhaustion you have to admit that you have it. You have to take the time to take care of yourself, or your body will make you.

There is a reason why stress, an emotional, mental thing, contributes to physical illness. If you never allow yourself a break, your body will make you take it.

Why not pause for a stretch, to catch your breath and recover for a moment?

Turns out guided imagery just might be for you after all.

What if I am a Perpetual Daydreamer?

If you spend all your time daydreaming and need some get-up-and-go that does not mean that guided imagery is not for you. You will notice as you do guided imagery that it is not unchecked imagination. It is daydreaming with a purpose.

Think about it; if you are a perpetual daydreamer then using your imagination is already one of your strengths. Utilizing it to move you toward your goals just might be one of the best strategies you could use!

This is not to say that if you are a daydreamer that guided imagery will necessarily come easily. Us daydreamers know how easy it is to move from one subject to another without realizing it until your five more subjects deep, wondering how you got from pencil sharpeners to space travel.

Yeah, I have been there.

I alternate between running and daydreaming myself, but wherever I am, imagining bare feet against the cement with sidewalk chalk grounds me. When I add the sensation of a popsicle, melting just barely faster than I can eat it in the hot summer sun, the purpley taste of grape-flavored ice on my tongue–it takes me to a different place entirely and brings a sense of wonder and peace to my present moment.

Daydreamers need to be grounded, but not in the “wake up and smell the coffee” sort of way. More in the, “remember that your life is already magical” sort of way. Even if the only good thing in your life right now is a memory of a better time, the fact that things were once better means they can be better again.

Life ebbs and flows that way. Our imaginations give us the power to bring past good times to the present. It also gives us the power to imagine beautiful futures that have not happened yet.

Photo of woman doing meditation like guided imagery

Photo by Oluremi Adebayo from Pexels

So How Does it Work?

Guided imagery takes you on a journey of the senses through your imagination. The more senses you can utilize in your guided imagery, the more real it will seem.

It is not that different than the mindfulness exercise of mindful eating, and doing this exercise in real life can help provide a base for how to explore guided imagery. If you have something nearby that you can eat, give it a try.

First, notice the way the food looks–what colors are present? Are the colors starkly different from each other, or do they flow from one into the other? Are there any ridges or shadows?

Next, go ahead and hold it in your hand and notice the texture and weight against your skin. Notice the way it does or does not leave any residue, and how the slight moisture of your skin affects it.

Before you take a bite, notice how it smells. Is it what you expected? Does anything in particular stand out?

Bite slowly and notice if there are any sounds associated with this particular food. Does it squish or crunch?

By now you will have also noticed the taste and the way the food feels against your tongue and teeth. Take the time to notice the complexity of the taste, the way that there are more flavors than the one you might have expected.

Now that you are done with the exercise, I bet you could repeat it with your imagination. You can take this experience out of your past and carry it forward with you into the future. You could even increase its variability–add a touch of cinnamon to the chocolate, or a hint of salt to the sweet.

Now that it is in your imagination, you have even more control over it than you did before. It is yours to create with however you would like.

Guided imagery works by taking something we have lived and using it to create a whole new experience.

Use a Transcript or Audio

The most common way to utilize guided imagery is through the use of a transcript or audio. You can find videos and audio clips online and in many popular mindfulness apps.

Transcripts and audios are a great way to truly get outside of yourself and experience something different. They can transport you to another world or time, or to something manufactured completely by your imagination.

Another benefit of a pre-recorded form of guided imagery is that it takes a lot of the grunt work out of the process. Good guided imageries will utilize all of your senses to truly immerse you in the experience. When you are trying to make your own it can be difficult sometimes to employ all of the senses.

Not only that, but if you are focusing on making sure you get all of the senses, it might take away from some of the wonder of the experience. Doing guided imagery should not feel like writing an essay or doing homework. Listening to audio is the easiest way to do guided imagery, but reading a transcript also gives you a general guideline to follow which helps smooth out the process.

Guide Yourself

Once you get a feel for how guided imagery works, you can also guide yourself through it. This is a good option if you want to use your memories for your guided imagery, or if you just cannot find a good one that you like.

You can also guide yourself through an experience you would like to have. Just because you do not know strictly what it would be like does not mean you cannot imagine it.

Take walking on the moon, for example. Very few of us have experienced that, but given a little creativity and flexibility we could all imagine it. The way each step would be a bounce, the way our feet would sink into the dusty moon’s surface.

Just because you do not know exactly what shade of white-gray the moon is when you are standing on it, I guarantee you could imagine it. That is part of the fun of taking yourself through a guided imagery–every detail is up to you. You can do whatever you want to with it.

Photo of candle, a common inspiration for guided imagery.

Photo by Dhivakaran S from Pexels

When is a Good Time to Use Guided Imagery?

In an ideal world you would be able to find a quiet place alone where you could fully immerse yourself into your guided imagery. Anyone here live in a perfect world?

It is not cynical to admit that you do not. We all have very important needs and responsibilities which often get in the way of quiet alone time. Take it where you can. Guided imageries are a great way to send yourself off to sleep at night–a time when things are generally a little quieter.

However, if you cannot get any quiet time then refer to my example above. Find a small guided imagery–a scene really–that resonates with and soothes you. Imagine it carefully a couple of times, making sure to really cement the details in your mind.

Then you can bring it to mind anytime you need it. Ground yourself with warm cement under your feet and sidewalk chalk in your hands (or whatever your chosen experience of calm and resilience is) as you have uncomfortable conversations, push yourself to deal with a difficult task, or as your careful plans fall apart.

When things are going well, pay attention to all the sensations you experience. Your next happy or peaceful moment could very well be the base for a guided imagery that will anchor you in your next difficult moment.

The skills that guided imagery requires will be helpful in every moment, even if guided imagery itself is not always appropriate. Being able to notice and appreciate the way your senses contribute to your overall state of wellbeing is most definitely a worthwhile skill.

Basically, using guided imagery is always going to be helpful to you, even when you are not specifically doing guided imagery. Practice it when you can, and you will find that positively affects all your other moments.

Photo of woman in nature.

Photo by Lucas Allmann from Pexels

I hope that this has cleared up a few things in regards to guided imagery. Do you have any tricks or tips that you use for guided imagery? Be sure to mention them in the comments below, as well as any of your favorite transcripts or guided imagery audio!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.