There is often much more to negotiating a serious illness or chronic condition than what conventional medical care brings to bear. I’ve witnessed this fact firsthand for the past 30 years as I’ve helped people with cancer by teaching them to harness the power of their minds to fight the disease, find their strengths, make the best of treatments, and meet the challenges that a significant illness brings.
At the core of this work is guided imagery—basically, a technique of highly focused daydreaming, the tools for which almost every possesses: attention, intention, will, and, most important, imagination. Like all higher brain functions, imagination is a mystery, but it’s not mystical. It’s simply a way of thinking that uses sensory information for processing, consisting of thoughts that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or sensed in some way in your mind. Memories, dreams, fantasies, plans, illusions, and lies all involve imagery—guided imagery is simply more directed and, in terms of using it for your health, based on the proven premise that when your mind is focused on healing, your body responds. While imagery is not a substitute for physical interventions, it enhances those therapies in many important ways.
How so? Imagery is closely tied to our emotions, and emotions can help or hinder us in our efforts to heal because they produce physiologic changes. In fact, imagery has been shown to affect almost all major physiologic control systems of the body, including breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, metabolic rates, digestive functions, and, perhaps most important, immune-system response. The fact that guided imagery has become widely accepted as a useful adjunct in cancer treatment speaks to its effectiveness. It has been shown to increase both the numbers and aggressiveness of natural killer cells (immune cells that eliminate cancer cells), reduce complications from surgery, relieve pain and stress, and reduce adverse effects of chemotherapy.
If it sounds fantastic, remember that the human brain is the world’s greatest pharmacy, making chemicals that control most of the trillions of functions going on in our bodies all the time. And the key to that pharmacy, says David Bresler, Ph.D., founder of the UCLA Pain Control Clinic, is imagery, because of its three-way relation to thoughts, emotions, and physiology. By using effective mental imagery, it is possible to trigger the body's natural response and effectively manage pain and illness without always needing to rely on pharnaceuticals and invasive medical procedures.