This blog describes a structured imagery that evokes past memories of joy and health and integrates them into a relaxation practice to support healing. First, a look at the logic for the practice and then the process of creating your own personal imagery script. A sample audio file is included as a model for creating your MP3 file. The blog is adapted from Peper, E., Gibney, K.H. & Holt. C. (2002). Make Health Happen: Training Yourself to Create Wellness. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt.
“I enjoyed regressing back into my childhood, remembered playing in the rain, making paper sailboats with my brother…. Placing my fingers in a bowl of water and stroking a paper sailboat enabled me to participate in the total experience… I felt tingling sensations all over my body, like tiny bundles of energy exploding inside of me. By the end of the week the simple word “rain” could induce these sensations inside my whole being.”–Student
Daydreaming! We all know how to do it. When we daydream, we feel, sense, hear, and taste our daydream—the image becomes tangible, as if we are living it. A well-developed relaxation image can also include colors, scents, sounds, flavors, temperature, and so forth. Evoking a past memory image of wholeness may contribute significant to healing, as illustrated in Pavlov’s experience with controlled conditioning and with self-healing.
THE POWER OF CONDITIONING
Most of us are probably familiar with the classical conditioning experiment of the famous Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, who taught dogs to salivate on cue when they heard a bell ring—even when no food was provided. Pavlov accomplished this by giving the dogs food immediately after ringing a bell. Eventually, the dogs became conditioned to expect the food with the bell and simply hearing the bell ring would induce salivation (shown in Figure 1).
Figure 1. The process of classical conditioning. (Figure adapted from: https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontopsychology/chapter/7-1-learning-by-association-classical-conditioning/)
The conditioning effects of imagery can have an effect on health as well as physiology as reflected in an anecdote told by Theodore Melnechuk about Ivan Pavlov. As an old man, he became quite ill with heart disease and his doctors had no hope of curing him. They took his family aside and told them that the end was near. Pavlov himself, however, was not disheartened. He asked the nurse who was caring for him to bring him a bowl of warm water with a little dirt or mud in it. All day, as he lay in bed, he dabbled one hand in the water, with a dreamy, faraway look on his face. His family was quite sure that he had taken leave of his wits and would die soon. However, the next morning he announced that he felt fine, ate a large breakfast, and sat out in the sun awhile. By the end of the day, when the doctor came to check on him, there was no trace of the heart condition. When asked to explain what he had done, he said that he had reasoned that if he could recall a time when he was completely carefree and happy, it might have some healing benefit for him. As a young boy, he used to spend his summers playing with his friends in a shallow swimming hole in a nearby river. The memory of the warm, slightly muddy water was delightful to him. With his knowledge of the power of conditioned stimuli, he reasoned that having a physical reminder of that water might help him evoke that experience and those blissful feelings, and bring some of those memories into the present time. Using this strategy, he harnessed positive memory and the associated emotions that evoked the associated body changes to bring about his healing.
We all performs many conditioned behaviors every day. Some of these behaviors can have implications for our health and wellness. There may be aspects of allergic reactions that are conditioned. For example, the literature reports that a woman who was allergic to roses developed a severe allergic reaction to a very realistic-looking paper rose, even though she was not allergic to paper. Her body reacted as if the paper rose was real. (Mackenzie, 1886; Vits et al, 2011).
Conditioning can also affect our immune system. When rats were injected with a powerful immune-suppressing drug, while being fed saccharin-flavored water, their immune function showed an immediate drop. After the drug and saccharine water were paired a number of times, the rats were then given just the saccharin water and a harmless injection of salt water. Their immune cells responded exactly as if they had received the drug! The reverse ability, increasing immune cell function, has been shown to be influenced through conditioning (Ader, Cohen & Felten, 1995; Ader and Cohen, 1993).
Belief can also play a role in these scenarios. Bernie Siegel, MD,(2011) has recounted the story of a woman scheduled for chemotherapy who was first given a saline solution, and cautioned that it could cause hair loss. Although this is an unlikely result of a saline injection, given her belief, her hair fell out.
Actions, thoughts, and images affect our physiology.
We often anticipate, react, and form conclusions with incomplete information. Thoughts and images affect our physiology and even our immune system. Re-evoking a positive memory and living in that memory could potentially improve your health. In a remarkable study by a Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer, eight men in their 70s lived together for one week, recreating aspects of the world that they had experienced more than 20 years earlier. They were instructed to act as they had in 1959, while the control group was instructed to focus entirely on the present time.
In the experimental group, all the physical cues were reminiscent of the culture twenty years earlier. Black and white television and magazines were from 1959. There were no mirrors to remind them of their current age—only photos on the wall of their younger selves. After a week in which the participants acted as if they were younger and the cues around them evoked their younger selves, 63% of the experimental group had improved their cognitive performance as compared with 44% of the control group. Among participants in the experimental group, even their physical health had improved. Independent raters who looked at the before and after pictures of these participants rated their appearance a little younger than the photos taken before the experiment (Langer, 2009; Grierson, 2014; Friedman, 2015). It is possible that by acting and thinking younger, we actually stay younger!
The limits of our belief are the limits of our experience. This concept underlies the remarkable power of placebo. If one believes a drug or a procedure is helpful, that can have a powerful healing effect (Peper & Harvey, 2017; also see the blog, How effective is treatment? The importance of active placebos).
CREATE YOUR OWN VISUALIZATION
Begin by remembering a time when you felt happy, healthy, and whole. Draw inspiration from Pavlov, who evoked happy memories from his childhood, apparently dramatically changing his health. To develop your personal visualization, set aside the time to recreate a healing memory. Remember a time in your life when you felt healthy and joyous (possibly from your childhood). For some, this might be time in nature or with your family or with friends.
Once you remember the event, re-experience it as if you were there right now. Evoke as many senses as possible. Think of the memory and any associations such as an old teddy bear, a shell from the beach, a favorite song, a certain perfume or some other tangible aspect of the experience. The goal is to recreate the experience as if it was current reality. Olfactory and gustatory cues can be especially powerful. If possible include the actual objects and cues associated with that memory—articles, pictures, music, songs, fragrances, or even food.
Sounds, scents, or touching and objects from that era of your life can deepen your ability to recreate and experience the quality of that memory—to actually be in the memory. These sensory reminders will help to evoke the memory and increase the felt experience. You might find it helpful to review Ellen Langer’s experiment, recreating an environment from twenty years earlier. The actual cues will deepen the experience, just as aromas often evoke specific memories and emotions.
The underlying principle is that memories are associated with conditioned stimuli that evoke the physiological state(s) in the body present when the memory was created.
Once you have created a vivid memory that engenders a sense of wholeness, develop a detailed description of your memory to help you evoke that experience. (For some, the memory calls up a timeless setting—relaxing on a warm beach, sitting in front of the fire on a winter evening, or sailing on a calm day. For others, the sense of trust may be associated with a specific person—someone you love—being with your grandmother, helping your mother bake a cake, or going fishing with your dad.). As you recreate the experience, engage all your senses (images, fragrance, tastes, textures, sounds, kinetics). Stay in your image: see it, smell it, taste it, touch it, hear it, be it and allow the experience to deepen.
Begin by writing up your imagery. Then record the introduction the structured relaxation and follow it with a description that evokes the memory as an MP3 audiofile. Use the following three-step process to create the script for your personal relaxation.
- Describe a time in your past when you felt joy, peace, love, or a sense of integration and wholeness.
- Identify the specific cues or stimuli associated with that memory.
- Write out a detailed description that will evoke your personal memory.
CREATING YOUR AUDIO FILE
In this approach, there are three components to your script: first, a relaxation practice to ease you into your visualization, then the visualization of your memory, closing with a brief script that brings you back into the present moment.
Begin the recording with progressive relaxation—use your favorite process for relaxing, or apply the script included here.
Generally tense the muscles for about 5 to 8 seconds and let go for 15 to 20 seconds as indicated by the …. While tightening and relaxing the muscles, sense the muscle sensations with passive attention. Tense only the muscles that you are instructed to tighten and continue to breathe while tensing and relaxing the muscles. If your attention wanders, gently bring it back to feeling the sensations in the specific muscles that you are instructed to tighten or relax.
First, find a comfortable position for relaxation… To fully relax your face, squeeze your eyes shut tight, press your lips and teeth together, and wrinkle up your nose… feel the tightness in your whole face… Now let it go completely and relax… Allow your face to soften, feel the eyes sinking in their sockets, and your breath to flow effortlessly in and out…
Tense both arms by making fists, and extend them straight ahead, while continuing to breathe deeply… study the tension… Now relax and let your arms drop as if you were a rag doll… To relax your shoulders, hunch them toward your ears and tighten your neck, while keeping the rest of your body loose and relaxed… Continue to breathe easily… Allow your shoulders to drop… Feel the weight of your arms… Feel the relaxation flowing from your shoulders, down your arms into your hands and out your fingers…
Now your stomach. Then let go and relax… Arch your back and feel the tightness in the back. Let go and relax….Allow your body to sink comfortably into the surface on which you are resting… Finally, tighten your butt, thighs, calves, and feet by pressing your heels down into the surface where you are lying, curling your toes and squeezing your knees together… Feel the tension as you continue to breathe, keeping your upper body relaxed… Now let go and relax… Allow relaxation to flow through your legs… Be aware of the sensations of letting go…
Feel the deepening relaxation, the calmness and the serenity… Feel each exhalation flowing down and through your arms, chest, and legs… Let the feelings of relaxation and heaviness deepen as you relax more… Notice the developing sense of inner peace… a calm indifference to external events… Let the feelings of relaxation, calmness, and serenity deepen for a few minutes. After a few minutes, evoke your memory of wholeness.
Insert your imagery script here.
Finish with the brief closing script
Allow yourself to just stay in this special place all your own… and know that you can return to this peaceful sanctuary any time you choose to do so. When you are ready to release the imagery, take a deep breath, gently stretch your body, and open your eyes.
Record these this whole script on your cell phone as an MP3 file.
When you record, it often takes a few tries before the pacing is correct. You may find it helpful to listen to the following audio file as a model for to create your own.
LISTENING TO YOUR VISUALIZATION
Create a sanctuary for yourself by turning off your cellphone, adjusting the heat to a comfortable temperature, and ensuring that you will have uninterrupted quiet time for 20 to 30 minutes. Loosen any constricting clothing or jewelry, your glasses, and so on. Settle into a comfortable chair, bed, or setting where you can easily relax. Enjoy letting yourself drift into and relive the memory experience.
Many participants report that this practice is an exceptionally relaxing and nurturing experience, one that supports regeneration. You’ll probably find that the more you practice, the more the relaxation deepens. You may find it helpful to keep notes and observe how you feel after each practice. Although it may feel strange to listen to your own voice, most people find that after a while it becomes more comfortable. After listening to it for a few times, you may want to rerecord the script. Finally, generalize this practice by smiling and evoking the memory scene as much as you desire during the day.
Additional strategies to enhance the relaxation
- Have a massage or take a warm shower or soak and then do the practice. Compare your level of relaxation afterwards to the result of using the audio alone.
- Practice gentle stretches to loosen tight muscles or “shake out” your arms and legs just before doing your relaxation practice.
- Draw or paint the relaxing image or actually go to the location where your memory occurred (if possible) and do your practice. Or practice outdoors in the most relaxing place you can find. Nature can be a great healer.
- Create an atmosphere that helps to evoke and augment your relaxation image (e.g., play background music or use fragrances that you associated with the image).
- Inability to evoke a memory of wholeness. When this occurs, it is as if one draws a blank. This is common, especially if one has experienced abuse or feels depressed. In that case, use the image presented in the script or make one up and create a totally imaginary peaceful image.
- Positive memories of wholeness evoke a bitter/sweet feeling. This occurs when images of wholeness include a loved one who has passed on or who is no longer in your life. On the one hand, this may call up strongly positive feelings, but it may evoke a sense of loss and sadness. If this occurs, simply chose a different memory or create a different script. Let the memory of loss go. Accept your experience and your feelings as much as possible, and know that at least you have been loved. For your image, it may be easier to focus on a natural setting you love—one you associate with peace and tranquility.
- Lack of experience with places in nature. Some people have only urban experiences and find nature alien. See what comes up for you. Does your favorite memory as a city kid recall a day of freedom on your bike or skateboarding, or an afternoon with your playmates? Perhaps you have treasured memories as a teen or an adult of long walks in the city or time spent with close friends. You also have the option of creating new images such as sitting by a fireplace, in a walled garden, or some other scene of peace and safety.
- Difficulty using progressive relaxation. If you’re having trouble isolating a muscle: touch it, stroke it with your hands, and then tense it fully (without strain) and feel the tension in your hands; feel the difference with your hands as you let go of the tension. Or, you may tighten only as much as is needed to feel the tension.
- The desire to stay in the imagery and not wanting to return to reality. If the imagery is much more pleasant than the present, use this process as a stimulus to reorganize your life and set new goals and priorities.
Ader, R. & Cohen, N. (1993). Psychoneuroimmunology, Conditioning,_and_Stress. Annual Review of Psychology, 44(1), 53-85.
Ader, R., Cohen, N. and Felten, D. (1995) Psychoneuroimmunology: Interactions between the Nervous System and the Immune System. The Lancet, 345, 99-103.
Grierson, B. (2014). What if age is nothing more than a mind-set? New York Times Magazine. October 22.
Langer, E. (2009). Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility . New York: Ballantine Books.
McKenzie, J. (1886). The production of the so-called rose effect by means of an artificial rose, with remarks and historical notes. Am. J. Med. Sci. 91, 45–57
Peper, E., Gibney, K.H. & Holt. C. (2002). Make Health Happen: Training Yourself to Create Wellness . Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt. ISBN-13: 978-0787293314
Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2017). The fallacy of placebo controlled clinical trials: Are positive outcomes the result of indirect treatment side effects? NeuroRegulation. 4(3–4), 102–113. doi:10.15540/nr.4.3-4.102
Siegel, B. (2011, May). Remarkable recoveries. Retrieved from: http://berniesiegelmd.com/resources/articles/remarkable-recoveries/