Guided imagery

Guided imagery is also called imagery or visualization. It is the use of images that help you think of and reach a specific goal. It is based on the idea that your mind and body are connected and that you can use your imagination to influence your body’s health and your sense of well-being. A therapist uses their voice, music or nature sounds to guide you into a state of deep relaxation and takes you on a journey in your imagination.

You may choose to create images that remind you of a safe, relaxing and peaceful place, such as a forest, beach or a favourite room. You can imagine the sounds, smells and feelings of being in that place.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals at your cancer centre may offer guided imagery sessions. You can also practise imagery on your own using teaching videos or audio recordings. The main methods used in guided imagery are:

The Simonton method has people with cancer imagine their bodies fighting the cancer cells. You might be asked to imagine breathing in a cloud of soft healing energy, with deep regular breaths, and feel the healing spread throughout your body.

The palming method involves imagining different colours to represent different things. You put your hands over your eyes and imagine a colour that you think represents being anxious or afraid. You then imagine that colour being replaced by another colour that you believe represents strength, courage or healing. For example, if you think brown is the colour of fear, you imagine your body slowly being surrounded and healed by a soft light of another colour that removes your fear, leaving you with a sense of peace.

Guided imagery as a complementary therapy

There is no evidence at this time that guided imagery can treat cancer itself. Very few studies have looked at the effectiveness of guided therapy in people living with cancer. More research is needed because the studies that have been done so far have not shown consistent results.

Guided imagery may help lower stress and anxiety. It may help ease depression. Some research has suggested that imagery may help with nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. It may also be helpful for people who have anticipatory nausea, which is when they feel nauseous before chemotherapy. It may also be helpful in lowering anxiety before radiation therapy.

Another benefit of guided imagery is the sense of control it can help you feel during a time when much of your life might feel out of your control.

Some smaller studies looking at the physical effects of guided imagery have shown that it may lower blood pressure and help with shortness of breath.

Side effects and risks of guided imagery

Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about trying guided imagery. Guided imagery has no known risks, and it’s thought to be safe. But it’s important that the therapist offering guided imagery has training and experience in using the therapy with people living with cancer. As with all types of psychological therapy, some people may find guided imagery helpful, while others may not.

Finding a therapist

Ask your healthcare team if they can recommend a therapist who uses guided imagery. Guided imagery is not regulated in Canada, and there are no organizations for their practitioners.

Expert review and references

  • Ades T, Alteri R, Gansler T, et al (eds.). American Cancer Society Complete Guide to Complementary & Alternative Cancer Therapies. 2nd ed. Georgia: American Cancer Society; 2009.
  • Decker G . Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies in integrative oncology. Yarbro, CH, Wujcki D, & Holmes Gobel B. (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011: 24: 626-654.
  • Eremin O, et al . Immuno-modulatory effects of relaxation training and guided imagery in women with locally advanced breast cancer undergoing multimodality therapy: a randomised controlled trial. Breast. Elsevier; 2009.
  • Hart J . Guided imagery. Alternative and Complementary Therapies. Mary Ann Liebert; 2008.
  • Karagozoglu S, Tekyasar F & Yilmaz FA . Effects of music therapy and guided visual imagery on chemotherapy-induced anxiety and nausea–vomiting. Journal of Clinical Nursing. Wiley;
  • Kwekkeboom KL, et al . Patients' perceptions of the effectiveness of guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation interventions used for cancer pain. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. Elsevier; 2008.
  • Serra D, et al . Outcomes of guided imagery in patients receiving radiation therapy for breast cancer. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. Oncology Nursing Society; 2012.
  • Ulbricht C, Cohen L, Lee R . Complementary, alternative, and integrative therapies in cancer care. Devita, V. T., Jr., Lawrence, T. S., & Rosenberg, S. A. Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 9th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Willams, Wilkins; 2011: 181.