Finding the Mind and Body Balance With Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is a relaxation technique that works on the premise that the mind and body are connected. It involves creating and focusing on positive images in the mind, using all the senses to make the image feel as real as possible. It is often performed along with an instructor or a recording that guides the visualization.

Guided imagery can also help to visualize a specific goal.

Read on to learn more about guided imagery and what it can do.

Woman meditating

COROIMAGE / Getty Images

Healing Properties of Guided Imagery 

Research shows that guided imagery can help the mind and body relax. It may also help with:

Stress and Anxiety

When we face distressing situations, our body's stress response activates. Unpleasant symptoms can linger if the stress response stays activated after the situation is finished. Relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery, can help elicit the relaxation response, lowering the sympathetic nervous system's heightened arousal and stress hormones such as cortisol.

In addition to stress relief, guided imagery can help with anxiety. Spending time in nature has demonstrable anxiety-reducing effects, but it's not always possible or convenient to head out into the wild. Guided imagery offers a way to visualize calming surroundings from anywhere. Using all of the senses in the visualization can feel quite realistic.

Research has shown that guided imagery can reduce anxiety symptoms in a variety of studied populations such as nursing students, first-time mothers, people experiencing public speaking anxiety, and people undergoing radiation treatment.


Guided imagery can help counteract the depression rumination spiral, reduce feelings of depression, and increase feelings of well-being.

Positive mental images have a calming and relaxing effect that extends to the body. They can also help reorient thoughts away from unpleasant stimuli.


A small 2016 study involving adults with cancer found that guided imagery helped improve fatigue and sleep disturbance scores. The study also suggested that guided imagery may be a way to help tune out hospital noises, allowing patients to have a better sleep.

A small 2021 study of 36 people who had congestive heart failure found that the group who experienced guided imagery therapy had significantly increased quality of sleep, while the control group did not experience a significant increase in the quality of their sleep.


A study of 60 people suffering from chronic tension-type headaches received guided imagery via an audiocassette (group one) or were asked to imagine their happiest personal memory (group two) three times per week for three weeks. Both groups experienced significantly more improvement in the frequency, intensity, and duration of their headaches than the control group.

Immune Health

Though more research is needed, one small study showed that practicing guided imagery may temporarily increase the number of certain immune system cells. This could have a positive impact on overall health.

Pain Management

Guided imagery and other mind-body therapies are well recognized for their ability to relieve pain, stress, anxiety, and depression. For some people, visualization involves a calming atmosphere, while for others, it can involve visualizing the pain leaving their bodies.

There is encouraging evidence that guided imagery may be able to reduce musculoskeletal pain.

A 2015 study reviewed seven randomized-controlled trials examining the effects of guided imagery for arthritis and other joint diseases. All of the seven studies reported statistically significant reductions in pain. The review also found that guided imagery reduced the need for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other pain medications and improved movement and function.

Types of Guided Imagery

Types of guided imagery include:

  • The Simonton method: People with cancer imagine their bodies fighting the cancer cells using visualizations such as picturing breathing in a cloud of soft healing energy with deep regular breaths and feeling the healing spread throughout their body.
  • The palming method: This involves placing your palms over your eyes and imagining that different colors represent different things. For example, imagine a color you've chosen to represent anxiety or fear, then imagine replacing that color with the one you have chosen to represent strength, courage, or healing.

Techniques to Get Started

There are several ways to engage in guided imagery, but they all involve directing the mind to create positive images. The visualization you create is meant to elicit a feeling of safety, security, and well-being.

Imagery Ideas

The setting you picture in your mind is entirely up to you. As long as it is a place that elicits calm for you and offers you plenty of room to engage your senses (mentally), you're off to a great start.

Some examples of settings people choose include:

  • The beach
  • A park
  • The woods
  • In front of a fireplace
  • By a lake
  • Fishing
  • Anywhere that feels peaceful and soothing to you

When you have your setting in mind, engage all of your senses and use them in your imagination. For example, if you are picturing yourself by a lake, allow yourself to feel the breeze on your skin, hear the water hit the shore, smell the fire and hear it crackling, and even taste the marshmallows you are roasting.

Or if you are on a tropical beach, smell the sunscreen, hear the sea birds, taste your pineapple drink, and feel your feet sinking into the warm sand. The more you are able to use your senses to immerse yourself, the better.

Guided imagery can also involve going within to visualize. For instance, a person who has cancer may imagine a warm, healing light on the area where their cancer is or was, picture their immune system attacking cancer cells, or even imagine Pac-Man chasing down and eating cancer cells.

At the end of your guided imagery session, take a moment to breathe deeply and notice how you feel.


The only thing you absolutely need to do guided imagery is your imagination, but you may wish to include other things to help you with your exercise.

You can do your visualization on your own without any guidance, but other methods you can use include:

  • Following an instructor
  • Following along with an audio recording
  • Using a written script

You may also want to use things to set the stage or create ambience, such as pictures to guide your setting or a scent you love.

Where you practice guided imagery is also up to you. Find somewhere you can relax uninterrupted for the 10–30 minutes or so you are doing your exercise.

It works best if you are able to give your whole focus to it, so avoid doing the exercise when your concentration is split, like when you're cooking or when it's not safe, like when you're driving.

Finding Your Breath 

Breathing is an important part of the guided imagery process. Following an audio recording or script may tell you to take deep breaths or engage in other breathing exercises before you begin your visualization.

Deep breathing, or belly breathing, involves concentrating as you take slow, deep breaths, feeling your belly expand as air goes in and deflate as air goes out. This type of breathing encourages relaxation and enhances your guided imagery experience.

Audio Resources 

Audio recordings for guided imagery can be found in many places. Here are a few to get you started:

How to Get in the Mind Frame

To get in the frame of mind for guided imagery:

  • Get comfortable in a place of your choice, sitting or laying down, and close your eyes
  • Take a few deep breaths
  • Choose your relaxing setting and let your mind picture it or turn on your audio recording

Is It Meditation?

Guided imagery is a relaxation technique. Some consider it a type of meditation, but others view it as a separate technique.

Developing a Thoughtful Practice Over Time 

Guided imagery can be done whenever and wherever you like, but it can be helpful to build it into your daily routine as you do other wellness practices.

You can also do it when you find yourself feeling stressed, nervous, angry, worried, or in pain.

Tuning Out Mental Noise

The more you engage with your visualization, the more you use your senses, and the more specific and detailed you make it, the better you are to tune out anything "extra" and the more therapeutic it is likely to be.

If you find yourself thinking pleasant thoughts, you can choose to go with it if you'd like and if it doesn't interfere with your visualization.

If negative thoughts pop in, just acknowledge them without judgment and let them keep rolling past out of your calm place.


Guided imagery is a relaxation technique in which a person uses their imagination to visualize a calming place and mentally uses their senses to engage and interact with their visualization.

Guided imagery can be done alone or with an instructor. It can be self-guided, done using an audio recording, or following a written script.

Guided imagery has been shown to have several health benefits, including stress and anxiety reduction, pain management, and better quality sleep.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How old is guided imagery?

    Guided imagery is a technique that has been used for centuries.

  • What are other ways to manage stress?

    Relaxation exercises are a great way to help manage stress. In addition to guided imagery, you can try exercises such as:

  • Can a therapist help you with guided imagery?

    Guided imagery can be self-directed, done with a recording, or led by an instructor, which can include a therapist.

16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. dos Santos Felix MM, Ferreira MBG, de Oliveira LF, et al. Guided imagery relaxation therapy on preoperative anxiety: a randomized clinical trial. Rev Latino-Am Enfermagem. 2018;26(0). doi:10.1590/1518-8345.2850.3101

  2. Canadian Cancer Society. Guided imagery.

  3. Johns Hopkins. Imagery.

  4. Children’s Health of Orange County. Guided imagery.

  5. Arthritis Foundation. Guided imagery for arthritis pain.

  6. Blödt S, Pach D, Roll S, Witt CM. Effectiveness of app-based relaxation for patients with chronic low back pain (Relaxback) and chronic neck pain (Relaxneck): study protocol for two randomized pragmatic trials. Trials. 2014;15(1):490. doi:10.1186/1745-6215-15-490

  7. Nguyen J, Brymer E. Nature-based guided imagery as an intervention for state anxiety. Front Psychol. 2018;9:1858. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01858

  8. Guided imagery.

  9. Jyoti, Parel JT. Impact of guided imagery on depression, stress and anxiety among wives of patients with alcohol use disorder. IJONE. Published online April 2, 2021. doi:10.37506/ijone.v13i2.14645

  10. Nooner AK, Dwyer K, DeShea L, Yeo T. Using relaxation and guided imagery to address pain, fatigue, and sleep disturbances: a pilot study. CJON. 2016;20(5):547-552. doi:10.1188/16.CJON.547-552

  11. Yeci Y, Afelya TI, Syahrul S, et al. The effectiveness of guided imagery therapy to increase sleep quality of congestive heart failure patients. Enfermería Clínica. 2021;31:S700-S703. doi:10.1016/j.enfcli.2021.07.020

  12. Abdoli S, Rahzani K, Safaie M, Sattari A. A randomized control trial: the effect of guided imagery with tape and perceived happy memory on chronic tension-type headache: Guided imagery and chronic tension-type headache. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences. 2012;26(2):254-261. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6712.2011.00926.x

  13. Kaiser Permanente. Stress management: doing guided imagery to relax.

  14. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Visualization/guided imagery.

  15. Harvard Health. Relaxation techniques: breath control helps quell errant stress response.

  16. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Relaxation techniques: what you need to know.

By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.