using guided imagery to heal in recovery

Many of the most powerful experiences I’ve witnessed in session with my clients have in some way involved guided imagery. If that sounds a little new-age woo-woo for you, stick with me for a minute.

As psychologists Judith Rabinor and Marion Bilich write in Effective Clinical Practice in the Treatment of Eating Disorders, “Focused imagery, in a relaxed state of mind, has been shown to positively affect medical conditions such as cancer, to improve self-regulatory capacities such as heart rate and blood pressure, and to enhance performance in a wide variety of fields (Naparstek, 1995).”

So what exactly is guided imagery? Basically, it’s an umbrella term for any type of focused imaginative exercise that incorporates one or more of the senses (visual, auditory, olfactory, kinesthetic, and tactile). You can do some types of guided imagery on your own, and others are easier with a therapist or other trained practitioner directing the exercise in a group or one-on-one setting.

Rabinor and Bilich continue, “We have found that guided imagery is a powerful but underutilized tool that can transform one’s clinical work no matter what one’s theoretical orientation… Imagery is the language of the unconscious. It has long been known that imagery techniques tap into that deep level of consciousness that cannot be accessed by words alone, giving voice to the unconscious thoughts and feelings that may affect behavior.”

In my experience, guided imagery — especially when used in conjunction with evidence-based treatments like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or Internal Family Systems (IFS) — can help people access deeper layers of awareness, insight, and healing than they’re able to reach with purely cognitive approaches.

EMDR with a Therapist

With EMDR, a widely-renowned trauma therapy modality, imagery is a key component of the protocol. While it’s important to allow space for the client’s experience to organically flow where it needs to, a well-trained therapist can deepen the healing work by skillfully guiding the client through the session, often involving rescuing or reparenting the younger wounded self.

Even in the beginning phases of EMDR, a Safe Place guided imagery is a key resource that clients can return to when things get difficult during future trauma processing, or anytime in daily life that they want to feel safe, peaceful, and grounded. Though originally developed for trauma resolution, EMDR has proven to be effective with a variety of psychological and behavioral issues, and should only be done with an EMDR-trained therapist; you can locate one near you here

IFS On Your Own or With a Therapist

In IFS, we work on getting to know your various “parts” or subpersonalities. This is not the same as the old phrase “multiple personalities,” now called Dissociative Identity Disorder. In addition to the core authentic “Self,” all of us have numerous parts, and at times they may show up and impact your behavior in ways that are not always the most helpful or healthy. (A classic, though often oversimplified example, is the Inner Critic.) 

Perhaps counterintuitively, being curious and compassionate with these parts, rather than judgmental and rejecting, is how they heal and stop feeling the need to jump into the driver’s seat of your life. Rather than talking abstractly about your parts, IFS uses guided imagery as a primary method of exploring and relating with them. This can be done either with a therapist who uses IFS, or even on your own if you’re not dealing with severe symptoms or trauma. Dr. Jay Earley’s book Self-Therapy is a fantastic guide for anyone wanting to use IFS for self-healing, or to deepen work you are doing with a therapist.  

Other Types of Guided Imagery Work

Even outside of structured therapy models, guided imagery can be useful in a wide variety of contexts. Some of my favorite group therapy exercises include guided imagery, and though I cringe a little at the whole “power of positive thinking” movement, I do at times enjoy straight-up guided meditations that help me picture myself being chill AF or living up to my most badass potential. My favorite meditation app Headspace uses visualization in a very down-to-earth way. And then there’s Andrew Johnson’s guided meditations, a number of which use some pretty rich visualization, but his soothing Scottish voice could tell me to visualize myself in an actual shark tank and I think I’d still feel relaxed.

One of my favorite guided imagery exercises that anyone can do on their own is communicating with my inner wise self, sometimes called the Inner Mentor. Tara Mohr, author of one of my favorite feminist business books Playing Big, shares a wonderful version of an Inner Mentor Guided Meditation that you can read about here and access a recording of by signing up for her email list, also linked on that post). 

Reconnecting to the Inner World

Though this passage refers specifically to eating disorders, Rabinor and Bilich describe what, in my experience, could be most people with significant trauma or addiction issues as well: “People with eating disorders ... often report feeling empty inside. Disconnected from their inner worlds, they are isolated from themselves and others. Guided imagery techniques bridge the gap between that unknown inner world and the outer world of therapy.”

I have about a zillion and one other thoughts about guided imagery because that’s how powerful I’ve experienced it to be — but I’ll save them for a later blog or podcast episode, because it’s bedtime and ain’t nobody got time for that right now!

If you have questions about other ways you can use guided imagery as a tool in your recovery process, feel free to comment on this post or shoot me an email — I'd love to hear from you. 

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.