Can Guided Imagery Train Us To Be Happy?

Ever heard of a therapy technique called guided imagery? It's been emerging since the 1990s, and is now a firm part of some therapeutic systems for helping people deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and perceptions of pain and stress. But there's an interesting new development following a new piece of science; if we learn how to do it ourselves, according to some Norwegian scientists, we may be able to improve our moods and relieve depression symptoms at home. And it seems to work by changing the actions of a vital part of our brains. But can guided imagery really train us to be happy?

Guided imagery is a technique that's obtained a bit of a following as a therapeutic tool. According to a 2009 scientific paper, it's a "behavioral technique used to direct individuals to effectively create and manipulate mental representations to produce therapeutic changes." If this is all confusing to you, here's the translation: the people who advocate for it believe that through guided, meditative thoughts involving images, specifically ones that are positive or healing, we can change our emotional states and bodily sensations.

The extent to which the body and the mind are linked is still a matter of intense enquiry, and there do seem to be limits to the power of guided imagery to help solve real pain issues; but the new science may herald a good tool for people who suffer from low mood on the regular.

How Guided Imagery Is Supposed To Work

The whole concept sounds like a bit of a hippie idea, and we're still discovering where it's effective (even as a placebo) and where it may be no use. The consensus among scientists appears to be that it has good emotional side effects: a 2005 study on chemotherapy patients found that it improved their anxiety and outlook on life, for example, and women with fibromyalgia reported in a 2014 study that guided imagery therapy reduced their stress, fatigue, and depression levels.

Even when pain itself didn't actually reduce, perceptions of pain often shifted. Migraine sufferers reported feeling less pain even though their migraines were objectively the same, patients recovering from spinal fusion recovered a little better from surgery, and people given guided imagery therapy after knee replacements had less cortisol, a stress hormone, six months after the surgery. It's sufficiently well-respected that the Arthritis Foundation recommends it as a way to help with arthritis symptoms, though it adds that it "should be used to complement, not replace conventional arthritis treatments like medications."

What The New Study Discovers

The big new step forward for the Norwegian study was that it took the guided imagery therapy out of the hands of specialists and placed it, with a few days' training, in the hands of patients. And it also found that there appear to be certain mechanisms in the brain that shift over a period of guided imagery training, and that they might contribute to an overall more positive emotional set of responses afterwards.

There are a few things to remember, here. One is that the study is small — only 22 people, all adults, only five of whom were women. Another is that assessing peoples' mental states and emotional balance is notoriously difficult. It's not like taking a temperature; most studies, like this one, use a series of questions designed to assess how depressed or upset somebody might be, and compare their questions at different points in the process to see if the test has had any effect. The problem with this should be obvious: people will start looking for an effect even if there isn't one, and might report that they feel better (or start noting more positive emotions) because that's what they're expecting to happen.

But the new study has another interesting aspect that means it's not all subjective. Yes, the 22 people in the study reported better emotions, showed lower levels of depressive feeling and said they were more satisfied with their lives, but the study also involved brain scans, and that's where things get intriguing. Over the 12 weeks in which the experiment took place, where they had two 2-day workshops and 15 minutes of training at home each day, they were also given two brain scans to check their electrical brain activity (an EEG, if you want to know the technical term, which involves a lot of electrodes glued to your scalp and makes you feel like a Borg out of Star Trek). The scientists believe the results show a shift in the activity of the right medial prefrontal cortex of the brain, and more connectivity between the brain's two hemispheres in general.

The right medial prefrontal cortex is a very important part of the brain for constructing mental imagery, and that makes it significant for something specific: PTSD. During post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks can involve intense visualizations and imagery from the time of trauma, and that part of the brain has showed to have abnormal blood flow in PTSD-suffering veterans. If the right medial prefrontal cortex is showing some kind of alteration, it's a definite sign that Something Is Happening and that we might be able to harness that in non-PTSD brains, too.

Why Guided Imagery Might Be Useful For Those Low Days

The new study's the first of its kind to show that you can do guided imagery work, with proper training, in ways that don't involve forking out for a therapist every week. In that sense, it's a boon for the young and less-moneyed who may also have mood disorders that could benefit from the process: depression, anxiety, chronic stress and so on.

Guided imagery is usually meant to be done, as the name suggests, by a guide. And no, you shouldn't just let some random friend at a party talk you through it. If somebody enterprising wants to figure out a kind of nationwide training program so that people can learn to do it on their own, I'd be the first to sign up.