The Role of Imagination in Health

by Kathy Bardins

Think yourself well. Miracles like tumors shrinking, legs regaining strength.The power of mind over matter. We’ve heard the stories, and have wondered about the validity of such claims. And as a culture that fears loss of mobility, ability and life, we are intensely interested in anything that will help us lead a happy and fulfilling life. But just what is the role of imagination in health?

Imagery and imagination have occupied an important place in the healing arts of many cultures throughout the ages. In the last 25 years, an increasingly impressive body of scientific and clinical research has emerged which shows that fast and extensive emotional, psychological, and physiological changes can be effected through the medium of mental imagery in its various forms.

group photo of presentersPathways offers many opportunities for individuals facing serious or chronic illnesses to participate in classes involving imagery as part of the healing process. On September 25-28, Pathways was one of the presenting organizations for a conference entitled, “The Role of Imagination in Health”, a conference of the American Imagery Institute.

According to Howard Bell, executive director of Pathways, “Imagery is a complementary therapy used extensively at Pathways for self-empowerment and for communicating with the body’s immune system. Illness images are often filled with fear, uncertainty and a sense of powerlessness. Healing imagery is a tool for addressing the fear from a place of power and confidence. Imagery is a tool that is powerful in the moment and helps participants learn that they may not be able to change the past or control the future, but they are powerful beyond belief in the present moment. Consistent with our new program, Imaging Immortality, we see these approaches as essential when facing questions about immortality.”

According to Lynn Woodland, we’re at a turning point, in an era between reality constructs. We’re moving from a mechanistic model to a more quantum method, and are literally taking a leap in consciousness by stretching our imagination open to how we view our healing process.

“We have tremendous power toward our healing process,” states Woodland. “Our imagination stretches us to a bigger picture. It takes us out of the mechanistic model—or aiming attention at a symptom, like shrinking a tumor, to a claiming of the healing that is already there. You can aim your energy toward where there is a need for healing, or you can imagine the whole, achieving whole body healing. We imagine ourselves already healed and whole, and this becomes our reality. We claim the healing that is already there.”

“It is in the imagination, that sphere of possibilities, that lies the sphere of hope,” states Heuer. “If you can’t see what is important, what is good, what is possible, then you can’t embrace it.”

Alexander Levitan, MD also presented at the conference. According to Dr. Levitan, we give ourselves negative messages all of the time. If we develop positive images about our health, we end up with positive outcomes. “Humor helps us deal with a variety of stressors in our lives,” states Levitan. “It is a way of diffusing anxiety.”

“You can’t be frightened and laugh,” states Levitan. In his presentation at the conference, Levitan talks about the role of humor in treatment. He believes that we need to acquire the ability to laugh, even in grim circumstances. By doing so, we diminish a lot of the anxiety. “It’s hard to be amused and be afraid at the same time.” (Check out Dr. Levitan’s book, No Time for Nonsense, whose message is that during serious conditions is precisely the time we need some nonsense.)

Andre Heuer facilitates his workshopAndre Heuer, D.Min., LICSW, sees the imagination as the sphere of possibilities. “It is in the imagination, that sphere of possibilities, that lies the sphere of hope,” states Heuer. “If you can’t see what is important, what is good, what is possible, then you can’t embrace it.”

According to Heuer, there is hope of health even in the middle of illness. “In your imagination, live your life well, even if there is no cure or fix for your illness,” Heuer says.

Heuer concentrated on storytelling during the conference in September. “Storytelling is at the core of us,” says Heuer. “We are living our story. We connect with our story. By using our imagination, we are increasing our energy. Even when we hear the stories of other people, these stir the imagination to new possibilities and new ways to be in the world.”

Stories relax you, stir your imagination, give you power over your own storyline, control. You can make choices, feel energized, and create harmony out of tension. “By telling your own story, or hearing another’s story, you can stir your imagination toward your own healing.”

Linda Borchers, MA, LP talks about individually designed imagery for healing. According to Borchers, we picture things in our minds all of the time, imagining what we might do, what we might say, and so on. Our health, whether with illness or about balance, can be enhanced by doing this as well. “It’s a gift we all have,” states Borchers. “There’s no mystique to it, we do it all of the time. And it’s a wonderful tool in dealing with health issues.”

But states Borchers, we must use it as part of an integrated response to an illness, or to enhancing wellness. And we must make it a priority, similar to what we do as instructed by a doctor. “It’s important to have in mind what is going on in your body,” says Borchers. “What’s happening now, and what do you want to happen. You are working toward seeing the transition of where your health is now and where you want it to be, and you are taking the time to do it each day.”

Much like an exercise regime, or physical therapy exercises, Borchers recommends visualizing your healing and your overall well-being both in the morning and before you go to sleep at night. Borchers works with patients who are interested in creating their own individualized imagery. She gets to know the person, their likes and dislikes before helping them design the imagery. “You can’t be a fighter pilot killing cancer cells, if you flinch at the thought, if that is not who you are.” So individualizing the imagery helps make it more helpful and more comforting to the person she’s treating.

Each person must find his or her own path to health and wellness. Health is a reflection of our beliefs. Your goal should not necessarily be to merely accept, cope, hope, fight, deny, or discount your illness. Rather, you may want to first start with making a decision to get well. You are thereby beginning to take a conscious role in your recovery process. Don’t let your current beliefs get in the way. And know that you can change, and that you are entitled to be happy and healthy. These few attitudinal steps may sound simplistic, yet they are, at the core level, very important. They provide a base for launching your recovery process.

You will probably find that it is easier to get well if you are excited about getting well.