Visualization, the process of imagining specific scenes or imagery, is effective for helping people manage pain, according to a study conducted by the European Society of Cardiology.

The mind and body are intimately connected, with thoughts influencing biology and biology influencing thoughts. For example, undesirable emotional states like stress and depression have been identified as causes of a weakened immune system, increasing the risk of the cold or flu, according to FamilyDoctor.org.

The interplay between the body and mind plays a role in determining the experience of pain. Before advances in modern medicine, doctors believed that emotions were significant causes of disease, and family physicians focused heavily on lifestyle factors that were believed to contribute to pain and other health conditions. As medicine became more advanced, the focus shifted to biological causes of disease and the emotional connection was lost, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Now, the pendulum is swinging towards center, with modern medicine and all its benefits readily available while other interventions aimed at calming emotions are becoming more prevalent. Research is increasingly quantifying the age-old idea that emotions such as stress and sadness significantly influence states of health or disease, particularly in chronic pain.

Reduced stress through visualization may help reduce pain

To investigate this increased awareness of the mind’s impact on the experience of post-operative pain, researchers in Denmark asked patients to visualize a place they felt safe, such as the beach, woods, or a vacation home. Lead study author Marianne Wetendorff Norgaard describes:

“When the patient expresses pain, the nurse helps the patient visualize an alternative scenario to the invasive procedure. For example, if the patient says ‘my chest is burning,’ the nurse may say ‘imagine that it’s a cold day and there is ice on your chest.’”

Researchers compared 76 patients who used visualization techniques to 71 patients in a control group. Pain and anxiety levels were recorded every 15 minutes and after specific experiences of pain. Patients in the visualization group reported less pain and requested fewer painkillers. Norgaard adds:

“Patients told us that visualizing their own safe place during the procedure made them feel involved and helped them cope with pain and anxiety.”

Researchers said visualization may be used to calm nerves, but could also reduce the instances where general anesthesia is used for certain procedures.

How to use visualization techniques

A good way to learn this technique is to start with guided visualizations like this free one that’s intended to reduce muscle tension and reduce chronic pain.

Allowing the mind to relax can take practice, so don’t worry if you have a hard time letting go. Have patience and enjoy the process.

While listening to the visualization, lay down or sit cross-legged with your eyes closed. Consider darkening the room or perhaps lighting a candle. Get comfortable, but make sure to stay awake. Falling asleep will prevent you from enjoying the benefits of visualization.

Staying awake is very important to note because when visualizing, you’re creating new mental pathways. Falling asleep while visualizing begins to create pathways in the brain linking the guided imagery and sleep, increasing the risk that you will continue to fall asleep every time you practice the technique.

Many times, the visualizations will involve envisioning a peaceful place such as the ocean or the forest. You may be asked to picture light emanating from various places in the body. These practices may be very different from those that you’re used to, but try to keep an open mind and stay committed to the technique.

The positive effects may not be immediate, but maintain the effort to see if this practice is helpful for you.

Developing a personal visualization practice

Once you learn the basics of visualization, you may customize the techniques to work for you. Make sure you’re in a space where you feel comfortable and won’t be interrupted. Silence makes a fine background, but so does light, relaxing music.

Let’s consider a patient with back pain. You might begin the visualization by lying down, and bringing awareness to each part of the body. Starting at the feet, notice the sensations there, before moving to the calves, knees, thighs, and pelvis. Release tension in each area of the body before moving upwards to the abdomen, chest, neck, and head.

After relaxing the entire body, bring awareness to the area with pain. Imagine a bright white light emanating from this area, healing whatever is causing you pain.

Alternatively, you might try an active visualization where you imagine yourself fully functioning and enjoying a favorite sport or activity, pain free. Visualize what it looks like to be healthy, happy, and vibrant. The body will ideally respond in kind.

What happens if negative images arise?

Sometimes during visualization, negative emotions or images can arise despite a person’s best efforts. These negative images can arise from parts of ourselves that resist the healing process, and typically result from fear, according to Deepak Chopra. Chopra says:

“You can’t just try to replace these negative images with positive ones, because the fear will throw up an endless stream of images and the positive images are not coming from a deeper level than the fear.”

Chopra recommends addressing the underlying fear so that it stops interfering with efforts to heal. Instead of getting lost in the negative image, notice the fear underlying it. Where does that fear come from? Where in the body? What does it feel like? Try to avoid judgment and instead notice the sensations that arise.

Feeling the fear is actually a way to heal it. You don’t have to understand it, just simply feel it. Sometimes thoughts or epiphanies may arise surrounding the fear as you feel it, providing greater insight into why you feel that fear or other types of resistance. When you feel ready, return to the positive visualizations.

Often, it takes repeated effort to heal fear or other uncomfortable emotions since these can be buried deep inside the psyche. Treat yourself with compassion, avoiding judgment, and patiently feel whatever comes up so you can continue positive, healing visualizations.

Have you ever tried visualization for chronic pain?

Image by aussiegall via Flickr

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