Guided imagery is not only deeply relaxing and soothing, it actually helps to balance the nervous system and teach the skills of self-regulation and relaxation. Guided imagery also allows us to learn how to become conscious of our own emotional and mental processes, it takes us on a journey in which we make conscious, process, make sense of and though this new understanding, regulate and “right-size” our intense emotions. Athletes use guided imagery to improve their athletic performance. Guided imagery can also serve as a “rehearsal for living” that the brain actually accepts as having really happened. The act of picturing a perfect run down a mountain or catching a ball, for example, can serve as mental practice that the body is actually able to translate into action. Picturing our day going well or being able to do a task in a relaxed manner rather than a stressed-out manner, can heal us to move through the tasks and circumstances of our day in a more relaxed manner.
Photo by Kim Weiss
Self-Soothing and Self-Regulation
Most of us don’t realize that self-hypnosis is a natural state; it is an altered state that we move in and out of throughout the day, like when we go into a trance driving along a highway or watching TV. “Self-hypnosis taps into a natural ‘basal ganglia’ soothing power source that most people do not even know exists, it is found within you, within your ability to focus your concentration. The basal ganglia region of the brain is involved with integrating feelings and movement, shifting and smoothing motor behavior, setting the body’s idle speed or anxiety level, modulating motivation, and driving feelings of pleasure and ecstasy.” (Amen 1999)
People who have been through trauma can become deregulated in the basal ganglia region. The basal ganglia can become reset to be constantly on the alert or hypervigilant. This trauma-related symptom of scanning one’s environment for signs of danger, or “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” is not only a phenomenon of war, but also of homes that are characterized by chaos and instability. Learning techniques of self-soothing can help us to reset their basal ganglia so that all the functions that fall under its jurisdiction become more regulated as well.
We want to make a distinction, however, between self-soothing and using relaxation techniques to rewrite or deny genuine feelings of anxiety that need to be processed and understood. Our worried feelings may be trying to tell us something, and we don’t want to use relaxation techniques to get rid of that voice. What we do want to do is learn to process and regulate emotion, to modulate intense feelings that are overwhelming us and keeping us from hearing even our inner voices clearly and develop skills of self-soothing and self-regulation. We want develop the ability sit with emotions that we may have shoved out of consciousness and become able to tolerate and process them rather than run from, numb out or self-medicate.
The Release of Self Soothing Body Chemicals
What happens in the brain when we hand someone a little white sugar pill and tell them they are going to feel better? Around 50% actually do feel better. This very well-researched phenomenon, “the placebo effect,” regularly finds that many people feel just as good, if not better, taking a sugar pill as the actual drug. And some studies show that the placebo effect lasts, even after the pill is no longer being taken. The “placebo effect” each year accounts for drug companies nixing production of little pills that might have made them millions if not billions of dollars. The drugs being tested just can’t compete with the little white sugar pills.
Here’s why. The “placebo effect” is not just about being gullible or receptive to suggestion. It’s about neurobiology; about what happens in our brain/body when we think we’re doing or taking something that is good for us. When we think and feel we are doing or taking something that is going to help us, our brain releases its own natural “antidepressants,” like dopamine and serotonin; the brain/body chemicals that nature put into us to manage our moods, kill pain, and “knit the raveled sleeve of care.” We feel better, sleep better, and our moods improve.
Guided imagery not only teaches us the skills of self-soothing and self-regulation, but also it has a placebo effect because each imagery is filled with positive suggestion that is telling us that we are getting better, that we’re learning to manage our emotions in positive ways. The guided imageries are full of positive suggestions and represent a path or protocol for getting better. Engaging in this kind of belief can release the kinds of body chemicals that are your body’s treasure chest for natural mood regulation and repair.
Another thing we want to accomplish through guided imagery is to consciously turn our negative “forecasting” imaging or thinking, into more positive “forecasting.” Because emotions are physical, processed by the body’s the limbic system, they make us want to do something, to take an action. If we’re scared or angry and cannot take any action because our situation or social conventions prevent us from it, those stress chemicals cannot be released through action and remain inside of us. Stress is hard on the body and can contribute to anything from brittle hair and nails to heart problems. Guided imagery helps to reduce stress and regulate heart rhythms, which in turn, regulate blood flow to all organs in the body.
These guided imageries have music especially composed for each journey to help the listener to relax and let go. The music is meant to sink deep into the limbic system to sooth and comfort. I also narrate the journey for processing each emotion so that the listener can feel safe and guided as they absorb they learn naturally, the skills of self soothing, self regulation and emotional balance. They are meant to comfort and hold you as you meet another part of yourself on your emotional journey.
Amen, Daniel G Three Rivers Press (1999)
Tian Dayton, MA, PhD, TEP, is the Director of the New York Psychodrama Training Institute and the Program Development for Breathe Life Healing Centers and executive editor of the Journal of Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy. She serves on the board of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and is the author of 15 books. Dr. Dayton is the creator of the Internet's first interactive self-help website, www.emotionexplorer.com. Learn more at www.tiandayton.com.