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Mind Your Head Brain Training Book by Sue Stebbins and Carla Clark
by Sue Stebbins &
Carla Clark

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By Nora Isaac for Alternative

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The medical community discovers how guided imagery can help its patients and lower its costs.

When breast cancer patient Gail Van Dyke heard the news that she needed chemotherapy, she was devastated.

While lying in her hospital bed at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, Calif., a chaplain came to visit and told Van Dyke how a technique called guided imagery could help her deal with any fears surrounding the treatment.Soon she began one-on-one guided sessions with the chaplain-also a trained imagery therapist-where she visualized her chemotherapy going directly to targeted areas while creating a shield of protection around healthy cells to minimize unnecessary damage. She also learned ways to imagine the chemotherapy as an important ally rather than a toxic poison.

"Imagery allowed me to face fears and deal with them, rather than suppressing them," says Van Dyke, a 63-year-old sculptor from San Anselmo, Calif. "I developed positive images surrounding treatment and outcomes, which allowed me to go into the treatment with a positive attitude."

Like Van Dyke, many patients are finding guided imagery-a process of tapping into the imagination for self-healing-a valuable resource. With medical institutions clamoring for ways to cut costs and patients more educated about the risks of pharmaceuticals, as well as a public embracing the mind-body connection and a swelling body of research proving the effectiveness of guided imagery, the therapeutic technique has found fertile soil in which to grow.

"We know things now that we didn't know 20 years ago," says Martin Rossman, MD, founder of The Healing Mind in Mill Valley, Calif., and cofounder of the Academy for Guided Imagery in Malibu, Calif. We now know ways to use "the world's biggest and best pharmacy on earth-your brain-to support your healing."

A seismic shift

At the forefront of this shift in thinking are certain technological advances that have been crucial in imagery's advancement. "What we now know from functional MRI testing-where scientists can actually watch what's happening in the brain-is that imagery activates the parts of your brain that process the type of information you are imagining," Rossman says. For instance, when you are told to hear birds chirping, the auditory part of your brain gets active; when you are told to feel the warmth of the sun, the sensory part of your brain gets active. "Then all of these different areas in the cortex of your brain send messages to the more primitive parts of your brain," he adds. "Since the image looks, sounds and feels like a safe place, your body interrupts the stress response and goes into relaxation." Once in this relaxed state, you can then use directed and purposeful daydreaming-tapping into the imagination through guided imagery. This form of purposeful daydreaming is more than just a relaxed state, however; it has been proven to shift mood, improve circulation, enhance immune responsiveness, lower heart rate and decrease blood pressure, among other things. "For most Western people, guided imagery is the fastest, most effective and most direct way to use the mind-body connection," Rossman says.

Jeremiah Pattillo, a 55-year old psychologist living in Bolinas, Calif., suffers from an autoimmune disease called nephritic syndrome, which causes the kidneys to stop functioning. After starting chemotherapy, he sought out Rossman. "I was getting good medical care but felt the mind-body integration was an aspect of treatment that was missing," Pattillo says. After an extensive medical review, the doctor facilitated a guided-imagery session that started with a basic relaxation technique and included focused breathing.

Rossman then led Pattillo through an exercise during which he recalled a special, safe place. While in this place, he directed Pattillo to look inside his kidneys and ask them what they needed. "My sense of what my kidneys needed in that moment was light and space," Pattillo says. So Rossman suggested he imagine warm, white light on that area. "The source of the light was coming from me, and I could somehow direct it," Pattillo adds. "I don't know how it happened, I don't really care, but I've been feeling significantly better since that day. I don't know if it was the imagery, but it feels like it was a big part of it. I've been amazed."

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