Imagine and Heal: Using Your Mind as Medicine

by Brenda Stockdale, HMDI Contributing Editor

Your Mind as Pharmacy: How We Know

We must learn imagery is everything. We create our world or it is created for us. We will be effects if we are not affectors, victims instead of masters of our destiny.—Patricia Norris, of the Meninger Clinic

Gary was eleven years old when an aggressive brain tumor first threatened his life. Despite two surgeries, by the time he was thirteen it had become inoperable. As the tumor continued to grow, Gary eventually lost his vision in his right eye, then the use of one leg and finally the other. Partially paralyzed and unable to attend school any longer, he used a skateboard to scoot around the house on his elbows. But Gary’s father refused to relinquish hope. He continued to research options and possibilities that might save the life of his young son. And by the time the doctors told him Gary wouldn’t live past Christmas, he had stumbled upon the Getting Well program in Orlando, Florida.

Gary was intrepid. Even though participating would land him in a group made up entirely of older women, he was willing to give it a try. He shared fully in the stress management exercises, contributed his own thoughts and ideas to discussions on finding meaning in suffering and didn’t try to dodge art therapy. So when it came time to learn a relaxation technique that featured his own imagination, there was no holding him back.

Imagining his white blood cells as powerful spaceships and his tumor as a stupid planet that needed to be destroyed, Gary slowly began to improve. Christmas came and went, and he began to regain the use of his legs. Tests showed the tumor was shrinking. Soon, he went back to school. About a year later, his doctor told him that the tumor was as flat as a pancake and ready to be absorbed by his body. When Gary turned sixteen, the local networks filmed him getting his driver’s license. At eighteen, he played on a soccer team in his high school, and when he was in college his story captured the attention of national media.

An extensive and compelling body of evidence demonstrates that imagery can affect a wide range of health issues: heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, the allergy response, type II diabetes, asthma, coronary artery disease, headaches, hypertension, and irritable bowel syndrome. Imagery can reduce chemo-induced nausea and nausea, improve sleep and mood, relieve pain, and reset the body’s thermostat (hypothalamic and autonomic regulation). Recent research indicates that specific imagery targeting white blood cells—a key component of the immune system—has a direct effect on their function (See Trakhtenberg). An Australian review of the data showed that those using imagery or similar techniques had nearly 90 percent less heart disease, more than 50 percent less tumors and hospitalizations, and 30 percent less infectious diseases than those not using such methods.

Martin Rossman, a physician who has taught imagery to thousands of patients and is the cofounder of the Academy for Guided Imagery, sums it up like this:

I’ve seen many people with chronic illnesses find pain relief, better sleep, relief from anxiety, and learn to live with much improved health. I’ve seen heart disease being reversed and diabetes and hypertension go into remission with natural treatments. Most of my cancer patients go through treatments with much less discomfort, anxiety, nausea and fatigue than they did when there was no way to get them involved. I’ve seen many people survive diseases that they were told would kill them. On top of that, I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of people who felt they were helpless victims of illness realize that they can play an active part in their healing, and find a great source of strength and pride when they do. They become aware that they are powerful, even if they are not omnipotent, and it makes a difference in their whole life, not just with their physical health (See Rossman).


This is big news for insurance companies. In a 2007 study of Blue Cross/Blue Shield members, those who used a guided imagery audiotape before surgery documented a substantial reduction in anxiety, were released from the hospital sooner, and had less postoperative pain and fewer complications (See Schwabb). An initial outlay of about forty dollars resulted in total cost savings of two thousand dollars per patient.

“This finding,” Dr. Rossman writes:

 “… has already stimulated the use of similar programs by other major health plans and medical groups. If similar results were achieved with a medication, it would be prescribed routinely by anesthesiologists and surgeons as part of a presurgical regimen, and I hope that this study will help us move toward the day when presurgical preparation using guided imagery becomes the standard of care.”

Grace had inflammatory breast cancer, an aggressive type that infiltrates the lymphatic system. Chemotherapy had controlled, but not cured, the condition and a radical double mastectomy was the next step. Picturing her immune system as an Etch-a-Sketch she imagined the little wand gathering up all the magnetic shards (cancer cells) and directing them toward the nipple of each breast—only the nipple (she figured that since her breasts were to be surgically removed the nipples were the furthest point away from her body.) For a few weeks before the procedure Grace practiced her imagery at home with a particular piece of music that her surgeon agreed she could bring into the operating room. A few days later, the surgeon called Grace, stunned and confounded by the tissue analysis—cancer was found nowhere except in the nipple of each breast!

As you can see, imagery is not a replacement for medical treatment but augments the care you are receiving. Along with healthy, diaphragmatic breathing it’s a quick fix for changing the channel on hurry and worry so you can redirect that energy into healing. But you don’t have to have a medical condition to benefit. My father, a rocket scientist who isn’t exactly inclined to poetic flights of fancy (no pun intended), is a true believer in the power of imagination. At 80, he’s hale and hearty—and every night before falling asleep he imagines his telomeres (a barometer of aging that shrinks as we get older) getting longer and he sees a graphic of a clock, with the hands turning backward in time until he reaches the age of thirty.

Changing Channels in Your Brain

Perhaps most importantly, the regular practice of meditation, imagery, and relaxation results in peace of mind. Imagery further reinforces health and wellness by changing the channel on worry, creating gratitude for the here-and-now, and bringing us back to the present moment with appreciation for all that is right within us. In this relaxed state, we are able to gain new insights as we turn down the volume on mindless chatter. When we do so, a fresh perspective on old problems emerges along with new opportunities and possibilities. What seemed like an endpoint becomes a turning point. We’re more readily able to engage in the present and don’t have to work so hard at letting go of the past or fretting about the future.

After invasive procedures or treatments, and especially for chronic conditions, imagery can restore a sense of tranquility and well-being. There is a pragmatic side to all of this as well. Imagery and relaxation offer us precious moments to interrupt all the busyness and tune in to what our bodies really need. Our culture is oriented toward the quick fix. If we have a headache, we take an aspirin. When tired, we drink coffee. If tense, we have a gin and tonic or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. Becoming deeply relaxed and acutely aware of what our bodies need allows us to respond in a more appropriate and healing way to our bodies’ requests.

To personalize this natural process for yourself, download the free audios above and on my website, used in over 60 medical centers nationwide.

Adapted from You Can Beat the Odds: Surprising Factors Behind Chronic Illness & Cancer—The 6-Week Breakthrough Program for Optimal Immunity. Sentient Publications. Copyright © 2009 by Brenda Stockdale.

Other featured article: How Your Environment Can Make or Break Your Healing Process


  • Trakhtenberg E. The effect of guided imagery on the immune system: a critical review. International Journal of Neuroscience, 118 (2008): 839-55.
  • Rossman M. Guided Imagery for Self-Healing (Tiburon, CA: New World Library, 2000).
  • Schwabb D, et al. A Study of Efficacy and Cost-effectiveness of Guided Imagery as a Portable, Self-administered, Presurgical Intervention Delivered by a Health Plan. Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, 22 (2007): 8-14.

© 2015 Brenda Stockdale. All Rights Reserved.

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