Arthritis Today

The Mind-Body Connection: Visualizing Better Health

Use the power of your mind to ease pain and stress.


Can the mind-body connection lead to mind-body health? Let's imagine it’s early, but you’re up and energized by the sun streaming through your window. You move easily. Your joints are supple, limber. You live without pain, stress, stiffness and fatigue.

Yeah, right. For those who experience the grating, aching and stiffness of arthritis, that scenario is hard to imagine – yet your imagination just might be the thing to turn this dream into reality. Creative visualization, experts say, can influence psychological states, perception and even everyday reality, enabling you to create a life with less stress and pain, as well as bring about more of the things you do want: mind-body health, happiness and success.

Sometimes called guided imagery, creative visualization helps you to imagine circumstances in your life unfolding exactly as you want – perfectly. As the scene plays out in your mind and you feel the powerful emotions that come with those positive images, the scenario actually will begin to play out in your life, says Joe Vitale, one of the teachers featured in the best-selling self-empowerment book and DVD The Secret (Atria Books/Beyond Words, 2006).

The Mind/Body Connection

Researchers long have believed that thoughts affect physical health. For thousands of years, medicine men, Hindu masters and other ancient civilizations worldwide have used visualization techniques to harness the power of their minds to reap physical manifestations. World-class athletes, such as Tiger Woods, and even NASA astronauts have adopted the practice to achieve peak performance.

Guided imagery is used in more than 3,000 hospitals nationwide, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, the Cleveland Clinic, health centers in California and cancer care centers in Portland, OR. When used in combination with other therapies, the technique helps patients cope with chronic pain, cancer, chemotherapy treatments and other debilitating illnesses.

And it works. Research shows that creative visualization can reduce stress and diminish depression. In one study, published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped significantly after participants engaged in guided imagery. Researchers concluded that when anxiety-producing information is replaced with happier, more positive images, people relax and feel better.

"The mind is so powerful,” says Vitale, who is also a certified hypnotherapist, with a degree in metaphysical science. “What you think makes an imprint on your subconscious. If you feel it, you can imagine it, and that will accelerate the process.”
Using Guided Imagery to Heal

The evidence confirming the power of imagination is supported increasingly by science. But, in some ways, the most compelling case is made by the people who have tried it themselves. Mark Henry, 47, a sports psychologist from Lake Oswego, OR., started practicing visualization after being diagnosed with osteoarthritis in 2005. He uses guided imagery to reduce stress and ease the aches in his body.

“I breathe into the tension and bring awareness to the parts of my body that are in pain,” Henry says. Sometimes he imagines that he is flexible and soft, like a spaghetti noodle. His body responds by becoming more relaxed and comfortable. Henry believes that the practice, in combination with acupuncture and yoga, has improved his health and diminished the immediate need for a hip replacement.

Vitale himself has witnessed firsthand the physical impact that visualization and imagery can have. After suffering for weeks with stiffness and tension in his neck, Vitale was shocked when an X-ray revealed he had arthritis. But in that same picture he saw an opportunity for healing.

Instead of focusing on the diagnosis, Vitale visualized the X-ray as a chalkboard with a drawing of his neck. Then he simply erased the arthritis from the board and imagined feeling great. The stiffness was gone within six weeks, he says.

In speculating on the explanation behind this phenomenon, internationally known author and motivational speaker Denis Waitley, PhD, who also is quoted in The Secret, says, “The mind can’t distinguish between something that is imagined and something that really has happened. So why not preplay the desired result and shape it in your memory?”

Visualization, Waitley explains, is like a dress rehearsal for the mind. He has studied the process for more than 40 years, and has worked with astronauts and Olympians, including gymnast Mary Lou Retton and runner Carl Lewis.

Research supports this practice. Studies have shown that when athletes imagine themselves running the perfect race or performing at their peak level, their muscles twitch and their neuropathways fire as though they actually were competing, Waitley says. By the time they head out to the track, they’ve already run the perfect race so many times in their heads that their bodies simply take over.

Just as a runner can dream the perfect race into reality, a slew of studies conducted in the 1990s and later indicate that people who are suffering from pain also can use imagery to dream away some of their discomfort.

A report published in the journal Pain Management Nursing states that people who used visualization were able to change their images of pain from “torment” and “never-ending” to more positive, less debilitating feelings that made their discomfort more manageable. And most said the visualization process – which requires deep relaxation – helped alleviate stress, which also has an impact on pain and illness.

Other studies indicate that visualization can help patients recover faster and more completely after surgery. Ellen Gordon, 66, can attest to that. The retired Valley Forge, Pa., school teacher was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis 30 years ago, and has had knuckle replacement and joint fusion operations on both hands.

With the help of a therapist, Gordon began visualizing the surgeries. She focused on every detail, imagining only the best outcome and a speedy recovery.

“Normally, it takes eight weeks to heal from this type of surgery, but I was healed in five weeks,” Gordon says about the procedure she underwent to fuse the middle joint of her right thumb. “I really think that visualization made a difference.”

How to Get Started

Whether a therapist or an audiotape guides you through the visualization process, or you do it on your own, the approach is the same: Relax your body and your mind, imagine the perfect scenario in specific detail and feel true joy – as though it’s already taking place.

Start by listening to some soothing music. Pieces from the Baroque period – such as by composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel – have been shown to quiet the mind and create a sense of reverie that makes the brain more susceptible to imagery, says Waitley.

Or try relaxing by listening to your own heartbeat and paying attention to each breath. Now imagine yourself in a beautiful, peaceful place, receiving what you want. Or picture your deepest desire and the ideal outcome. “This can be emotion-driven healing,” Vitale says. “I realize that when you’re aching, it’s tough to pretend the arthritis isn’t there. So you need to get into an emotional state that feels good.”

The entire process – from relaxation to visualization – can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes or an hour. Henry visualizes scenes while waiting at a stoplight or before picking up the phone. Waitley recommends taking five or 10 minutes first thing in the morning, and again just before bed, to visualize what you want – whether it be healing your body, excelling at work or overcoming a longtime fear.

Determine the Details

Whatever time you spend creating your picture, remember – details do matter.  Use all of your senses to set an imaginary scene viewed through your own eyes. Imagine good cells sweeping away the sick cells. See it happen. What do your joints feel like when you climb easily out of bed in the morning? How does the new paint smell in the perfect home you’ve been visualizing? What does the engine in your dream car sound like? What tone does the doctor use when she passes along good news at your next appointment?

Don’t worry if you can’t actually see the picture in your mind. For some people, it is more of a feeling, or an intuitive sense of knowing.

“When I first started, I couldn’t see a damn thing,” Gordon says. “Now, I see enough to know it’s there, but in a shadowy way. I can feel it more in my body. I’m more physical that way.”

And the process does get easier with practice, Waitley says. Play around, and experiment. Visualize small things, such as a meeting with your boss running to perfection, or remaining calm while navigating rush-hour traffic. Gordon has applied the technique to everything from exercise to doctors’ visits, where she visualizes good, open interactions, as opposed to the hurried, stressful appointments she had previously.

After You Imagine It, Do It

Keep in mind, however, that simply visualizing isn’t enough. You still have to schedule the appointment, run the race, test-drive the car. You have to take action, Vitale says. It’s also important to work with trusted coaches, therapists, medical personnel and others who support your imagery and can instruct you in its practice.

Once you’ve imagined what you can do, have or be, do what it takes to nurture your dreams into reality. For Gordon, that means maintaining a healthy lifestyle apart from the visualization. She exercises regularly, eats well, and fosters feelings of gratitude and kindness. Yet, not everything Gordon has imagined has come true.

“For a while, I tried to make the arthritis disappear, but I never could quite visualize it,” she says. “But, visualization really has helped me deal with certain aspects of the disease.”

Sometimes, without our even realizing it, a lack of focus or attention causes our minds to wander, or allows doubt and worry to seep into our subconsciousnesses. Those misdirected thoughts can weaken our beliefs and sabotage our overall efforts to accomplish the “big picture” we’re imagining.  

Confusion about what we truly desire, as well as emotional blocks, also can contribute to keeping our dreams at bay, Vitale says. “We are driven by our beliefs – both conscious and subconscious,” he explains. “If we believe it’s not going to work, we will find a way for it not to.”

To dispel those limiting beliefs, Vitale recommends first identifying what they are, and then trying to figure out why they persist. Perhaps fear compels you to stay safe and not try challenging new things. Maybe you remain in that unfulfilling job because you subconsciously value security more than happiness.

Once you pinpoint and let go of whatever stumbling blocks are holding you back, you become free to create whatever you want. So dream big, because your imagination will help those dreams materialize.

“When the mind talks, the body listens,” Waitley says. “With visualization, it appears first in your mind. Then – with action – it appears in your life.”

Resources to Get Started

Looking to develop the power of your imagination? There are scores of books and audio programs to guide you through an imagery session while you relax in the comfort of your own home. Or turn to a certified professional to help you hone visualization techniques. Here are a few resources to get you started:

  • Imagery International. This site lists doctors, nurses, acupuncturists, naturopaths, psychologists, hypnotherapists, social workers and life coaches who are trained and certified in guided imagery.
  • The Academy for Guided Imagery. This organization trains health-care professionals in imagery techniques and provides links to practitioners, who must complete a 150-hour program before receiving academy certification.
  • A Guided Meditation to Help You With Rheumatoid Arthritis or Lupus (Audio CD, Image Paths, 1992)
  • A Meditation to Help With Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue, by Belleruth Naparstek (Audio CD, Image Paths, 2002)
  • Self-Healing With Guided Imagery (Audio CD, Sounds True, 2004), by Martin L. Rossman, MD, and Andrew Weil
  • Guided Imagery for Self-Healing (Book, HJ Kramer/New World Library, 2000), by Martin L. Rossman, MD
  • Creative Visualization: Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life (Book, Full Circle Publishing Ltd., 2003), by Shakti Gawain.