For several years now, I have been writing about, and teaching, a visualisation strategy of imagining illness turning into wellness. People often ask me how it works. I believe there are a few things that contribute so I thought I’d briefly sketch out some of them in this blog.
1) Impact on the immune system
There’s a growing body of research that suggests that guided imagery elevates the immune system. Studies have shown positive changes in NK cells, neutrophils and lymphocytes, as well as in secretory immunoglobulin A, for example.
2) A person feels empowered rather than hopeless
Many people, when suffering from injury, illness or disease, feel a sense of hopelessness and that there isn’t anything they can do to facilitate their recovery. This can be stressful. Understanding that the mind impacts the body often gives people a sense of hope and a belief that they can, in fact, do something to help themselves, which can therefore reduce stress.
Thus, a consistent cultivation of hope or positive feeling might head a person in the direction of wellness just as a consistent experience of stress can have the opposite effect.
3) The impact of positive belief
The placebo effect is no longer viewed as just psychological. There is no question, now, that expectation and belief cause changes in the brain and body. The apparent limits of the placebo effect are now being explored and we’re learning that, to an extent, and depending upon the condition studied, the brain can create the chemistry it needs to create to give a person what they’re expecting to happen. Placebo pain relief comes, for example, because a person’s brain produces its own version of morphine.
4) Focusing of willpower
There’s a lot to be said for the impact of a will to live or a will to get better. Sometimes, it is the main ingredient some people need. It may not always produce seeming miracles, but it can certainly help.
5) The positive impact of repetitive visualising
I believe this plays a large role and suggests that neuroplasticity is taking place in the brain, which is where the brain undergoes physical changes. It takes consistency (repetition) to effect such change.
Essentially, the brain is ‘wiring in’ what a person is imagining taking place. It is well known to occur when a person visualises movement, for example, as in sports or rehabilitation. I personally believe, even though there is limited research on this, that the same kind of thing happens with visualisation to improve many other conditions.
Thus, repetitive visualisation might create physical change in the brain, which is accompanied by a physical change in the body, particularly in the region that a person’s attention is focused upon, but also in other systems of the body that are relevant to the change. There is some evidence that this might happen in the immune system.
In addition, visualisation studies show an increase in white blood cells over time as a person practices visualisation on a consistent basis. This might correlate with neuroplasticity in the brain, which also occurs over time.
6) Natural recovery or other positive factors
It’s also important to mention the natural course of something. Sometimes, a person might be on the road to recovery anyway. Visualisation might speed the process up or have little or no additional effect because the body is already doing what it needs to do.
Also, many people make lifestyle changes that positively impact their circumstances, which might involve changes in physical activity, diet, stress levels, change of environment, etc.
So, very briefly, this is what I believe is going on, or contributing, when a person uses visualisation techniques.
And please note, I’m certainly not suggesting that we use our minds instead of following medical advice, but that we use our minds in addition to medical advice. Many people, in fact, actually visualise their medicines doing the desired job. Some people receiving chemotherapy for cancer, for example, have visualised the chemo drugs as piranha fish or Pac men nibbling the tumour so that, in their imagination, the tumour (or tumours) is getting smaller and smaller and smaller
Copyright 2021 David R. Hamilton PhD.