Supportive Healing Through Guided Imagery
By Christina Szeto
Calming music. Focused breathing. A soothing voice guiding you. Relaxation.
Vanessa* found herself following these prompts [or suggestions] at Sutter Health’s California Pacific Medical Center during her first guided imagery session.
An active nature-lover and San Franciscan, Vanessa was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, and began treatment at CPMC’s Bryan Hemming Cancer Care Center. Following one of her radiation treatments, Vanessa was visited by a practitioner from CPMC’s Institute for Health & Healing (IHH) to inform her of the institute’s supportive services. She learned that patients are eligible to receive two complimentary guided imagery sessions during treatment, and she decided to give it a try.
Research studies have shown that the mind and body are connected, and that what we think and feel are connected to physical healing. Guided imagery is a technique that engages and focuses the imagination, helping the body relax. It is used in a variety of ways to alleviate pain, anxiety, insomnia and stress. “CPMC offers this supportive healing process because of the significant effects it has on the mind and body,” explains Jade Wood, M.A., a psychotherapy and guided imagery intern at IHH.
Guided imagery is related to meditation, hypnosis and visualization. The practitioner guides the patient to access his or her own intuition, stimulating images and sensations. Research supports the benefits of guided imagery in a number of applications, including relaxation, minimizing side effects of medications or medical procedures, preparing for and healing from surgery, chronic illness, enhancing coping skills, and shortening the length of hospital stays.
Mind & Body Connection
Leslie Davenport, M.S., MFT, an integrative psychotherapist at IHH, explains that when called upon, the images held within our minds can cause our bodies to react accordingly. “If a patient imagines they are on a beach, his/her body would respond as though they were at the beach,” says Leslie. “There is a mind-body connection – these two parts are talking to each other constantly.”
In Vanessa’s case, guided imagery allowed her to work on healing and strengthening her immune system, while also finding a support system. Following Vanessa’s guided imagery sessions, she was sent a recording of a personalized guided imagery instruction facilitated by her practitioner. She is able to use this recording wherever and whenever she needs. “I wanted to work on supporting the recovery of my immune system after my chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The CD I was sent had the voice of the guided-imagery practitioner, relaxing music, and incorporated the places and images I had previously envisioned in my mind,” Vanessa explains. “The skills you learn are empowering – I am able to get into a deep state of relaxation. As patients, we are exposed to different modalities that help, and you learn you don’t always have to take a pill to calm your nerves.”
“You need breaks from all the worry and anxiety. Guided imagery helps you let go of the mental static in your mind. When you have cancer, the process of receiving diagnoses, undergoing treatments, and waiting for test results has many people in a constant state of anxiety. It is a tool you always have within you, and it starts by remembering to breathe,” she says.
A Sense of Community
Vanessa also attends IHH’s cancer support group led by Leslie and Jade. Attendees are able to find support, and learn about different supportive treatment options available. “I am very grateful to be in the support group with Leslie and Jade. We’ve created a mini community, which is very sacred,” explains Vanessa. Jade understands the importance of finding group support, saying, “We give patients the opportunity to make the connection physically, emotionally and socially – that’s what gives people hope and energy to refresh, move forward, to continue with treatment, and also gives them a sense of community.”
“I like to see people continue their healing and maintaining support. Patients often have a hard time going back to their old life. The techniques they’ve learned [during cancer treatment] can be integrated into the rest of their lives,” says Jade.
*The name was changed to protect the privacy of the patient.