A range of related therapies fall under the umbrella term "visualisation", including guided imagery and creative visualisation. Visualisation therapy is used as an adjunctive technique in Psychosynthesis and many cognitive approaches to psychotherapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
It usually involves a trained practitioner or teacher helping an individual client or a group to generate mental images that recreate certain sights, sounds, tastes, smells, movements, or images, together with imaginative content. These may be based on important memories and can lead to a strong emotional response.
Visualisation is often used as part of a multimodal treatment plan with other methods, frequently music therapy and relaxation techniques. One example of its use would be to alter a client's mental imagery, replacing distressing images or feelings around an intimidating social event, with those that emphasise physical comfort, calm, and optimism.
A large number of research studies have been carried out on this subject, and many support its effectiveness. Writing in the American Journal of Nursing, Laurie Kubes of the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System, USA, explains, "Imagery has been used as a healing practice since ancient times. Its reemergence in modern medicine began in the second half of the 20th century, when research suggested that imagery could help reduce patients' pain and anxiety and improve their quality of life and outlook on their illness.
"Research suggests that this method of inducing relaxation encourages patients' healing process and gives them a greater sense of autonomy in relation to disease and its management. Because imagery is noninvasive, the risks associated with its use are minimal and it is now widely used in integrative nursing."
In a study of patients with breast cancer, relaxation and visualisation therapy was effective to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression scores. "Treatment of breast cancer is usually associated with significant psychological stress," say the researchers, led by Dr D. F. Nunes of The Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. So they investigated relaxation and visualisation therapy as a method of reducing distress.
Their study included 20 patients who underwent relaxation and visualisation therapy in groups, over the course of 24 consecutive days. They were then compared against a group of 14 patients who received no therapy. The therapy reduced stress, anxiety, and depression, as measured in structured interviews. However, it did not affect levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol. A longer course of therapy "may be necessary to translate psychological into biological changes", the researchers state in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.
A further study investigated the effectiveness of a therapy called Guided Imagery and Music on stress. Specifically, the researchers investigated people on long-term stress-related sick leave. They write in the Journal of Music Therapy that, "Long-term stress-related sick leave constitutes a serious health threat and an economic burden on both the single worker and the society. Effective interventions for the rehabilitation and facilitation of return to work are needed."
They explain that Guided Imagery and Music is a psychotherapeutic approach including relaxation, music listening, and imagery. It was provided to ten workers on sick leave, while a further ten remained on a waiting list. After nine weeks, the therapy led to significant beneficial effects on well-being, mood disturbance, and physical distress. A smaller, but significant, benefit was seen on cortisol levels.
Participants given the therapy sooner rather than later in their sick leave were able to return to their jobs more quickly. Having the therapy earlier on was also more beneficial in terms of perceived stress, well-being, mood disturbance, depression, anxiety, and reduced physical distress symptoms.
"The results indicate that GIM is a promising treatment for work-related chronic stress," the researchers, from Copenhagen University in Denmark, conclude.
One explanation for the health benefits often seen with visualisation and imagery is known as psychoneuroimmunology. This term describes the interactions between psychological states and health as mediated by the immune system.
In essence, mental processes can influence physical health in many ways that are linked to ill health and disease. Hence altering an individual's thoughts, feelings, and perceptions has the potential to positively influence the body and enhancing physical health.
All mind-body interventions, including visualisation, can therefore contribute significantly to treatment of and recovery from a range of conditions, as well as acting in a preventative way against infection and disease.
Nunes, D. F. et al. Relaxation and guided imagery program in patients with breast cancer undergoing radiotherapy is not associated with neuroimmunomodulatory effects. The Journal of Psychosomatic Research, December 2007, Volume 63, Issue 6, pp. 647-55.
Beck, B. D. et al. Coping with Work-Related Stress through Guided Imagery and Music (GIM): Randomized Controlled Trial. The Journal of Music Therapy, Fall 2015, Volume 52, Issue 3, pp. 323-52.
Kubes, L. F. Imagery for Self-Healing and Integrative Nursing Practice. The American Journal of Nursing, November 2015, Volume 115, Issue 11, pp. 36-43.