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Guided Imagery for Self-Healing
An Essential Resource for Anyone Seeking Wellness
By Martin L. Rossman
H J Kramer and New World LibraryCopyright © 2000 Martin L. Rossman
All rights reserved.
Faith Healing, Placebo Effects, and Imagery
When I was in my second year of practice, working in the county medical clinic, a middle-aged woman named Edna came in for a checkup. She was a likable, talkative person who said she had come because "the doctors worry me so and tell me I better keep an eye on my blood pressure." Her chart revealed that she had been diagnosed with a precancerous condition of the uterine cervix more than two years earlier, and the gynecologists she had seen wanted to take biopsies and remove the affected areas. Edna had turned this recommendation down four times, and each successive note put in her chart by her gynecologic consultants sounded more and more frustrated and concerned. There was mention of possible psychopathology and "irrational beliefs about healing."
When I asked Edna why she was unnecessarily risking her life, she smiled broadly and told me that "Jesus will heal me, and I don't need surgery." She said she prayed and talked to Jesus every day, and he promised he would heal her if she put her trust in him.
I asked her how she communicated with Jesus, and she told me, "I see him when I pray, and he talks to me just like we're talking now." I again explained the medical concerns that I and the other doctors shared about her. Then I told her I had no doubt that Jesus could heal her if he wanted to but that I wondered how long it would take. She was a bit surprised when I asked her if she would be willing to get in touch with him and ask him if he'd agree to heal her in the next six weeks.
She closed her eyes, and after a few minutes smiled and nodded her head. "Yes, he says he can and will heal me in six weeks." She agreed to have another pelvic exam and Pap smear at the end of six weeks and also agreed to have a cone biopsy performed if the Pap smear was still abnormal. "But it won't be," she said. "I know that now." And she left, smiling more widely than ever. I was glad to have obtained a commitment from her to have a biopsy if her prayer proved ineffective.
Six weeks later she returned. Her cervix looked normal on examination. Three days later her Pap smear report came back — perfectly normal. Edna's story certainly does not mean that you can forego Pap smears or that you must believe in Jesus. It does, however, point to the potent healing effects of faith and belief.
The Power of Positive Expectant Faith
Like most physicians, I had, of course, witnessed the placebo effect on many occasions. It wasn't uncommon at the county hospital to give water injections to overly dramatic patients complaining of pain, while telling them it was a powerful pain medication. Often a shot of placebo solution relieved pain as effectively as if it had been morphine. At the time, we thought that this kind of response to placebos could tell us if the pain was "real" or not. As we'll see, the issue is not that simple.
I had also noticed with interest how many people began to feel better the instant they took the first dose of a medication known to take hours, days, or even weeks to begin working pharmacologically — not to mention how many times people began to feel better as soon as I wrote their prescriptions! No one knows exactly how these effects come about, but they are everyday occurrences in medicine. It has been determined that the placebo effect is responsible for over half the action of some of our most powerful and trusted drugs and much of the action of any therapy — alternative or conventional, medical, surgical, or psychological.
Belief can not only draw positive reactions from neutral substances, it can even cause people to react in opposition to the pharmacologic effects of a medication. A physician reported giving syrup of ipecac to two patients with severe nausea and vomiting. Ipecac is a very powerful emetic (it induces vomiting) and is usually given to people who have swallowed poison in an effort to clear their stomachs. In this case, the patients were told that the ipecac was a very strong medicine that would soothe their stomachs and stop their vomiting — and it did.
The power of expectation and faith affects even surgical outcomes. In the 1950s there was a good deal of enthusiasm in the medical community about an operation that was quite successful in relieving chest pain (angina pectoris) and improving heart function in men with blockage in their coronary arteries. The operation involved making an incision next to the breastbone and tying off a relatively superficial artery, which theoretically shunted more blood to the arteries supplying the heart. Most of the patients who underwent this procedure improved dramatically, experiencing both relief of pain and an improvement in heart function. Then a controlled study was done on the operation. A matched group of men with similar angina were brought to the operating room, they were anesthetized, and a surgical incision was made. Half of these men, however, were sewn up again without having anything else done. After surgery, they experienced the same dramatic relief of anginal pain and enjoyed the same improvement in heart muscle functioning as the men who underwent the real operation.
To call an effect "placebo" does not mean that the patient's response to the placebo isn't real. It simply means that the response stems from the patient's belief in the therapy rather than from the therapy itself. What is important about the placebo response is that it demonstrates beyond a doubt that thoughts can trigger the body's self-healing abilities.
Somehow, under certain conditions, our intentions, desires, and beliefs in recovery are translated into physical healing. What are the conditions that allow this to happen? If we can be "tricked" into healing, why couldn't we heal "on purpose"? How can we best use our minds and wills to further the process of healing? What are the "best" thoughts for healing? These questions have motivated me ever since I first worked with Edna and ultimately led to my involvement with imagery.
My Introduction to Imagery
In 1972 I visited a doctor friend of mine who was working in an experimental health clinic in the seaside town of Bolinas, California. The founder and director of the clinic was a physician named Irving Oyle, who had retired to Bolinas from his general practice in New York. Dr. Oyle, who left this life in 1994, had at that time combined his interests in physics, parapsychology, psychology, and medicine into an informal clinical study of alternative healing methods. He was a masterful clinician who almost seemed able to talk his patients into getting well.
Instead of routinely prescribing medicines, Dr. Oyle would have his patients relax and visualize themselves healing, or he would have them imagine having a conversation with a wise figure who could tell them why they were sick and what they could do to get better. At that time, I was studying and beginning to practice acupuncture in a neighboring town. Dr. Oyle was also researching acupuncture, and I began to visit the clinic frequently to compare notes. During my visits I became fascinated with the self-awareness and clinical improvement people seemed to be experiencing from working with his imagery techniques.
My interest in imagery remained rather superficial, however, until later that year when I heard a radiation oncologist, Dr. Carl Simonton, and his wife, Stephanie Matthews-Simonton, a psychologist, present several cases of patients with untreatable cancers who seemed to have recovered with the use of a simple visualization technique. The technique consisted of relaxing and picturing their immune cells as numerous, aggressive, and powerful, destroying the cancer cells, which they visualized as isolated, weak, and confused. The Simontons reported that people imagined the battle in many different ways — from knights on horseback routing their enemies to vicious dogs gobbling up chunks of meat. The anatomic accuracy of the image did not seem to matter as much as the enthusiasm and frequency of the practice. The Simontons have since gone on, together and independently, to expand their method into a comprehensive psychological program for dealing with cancer, but their initial work with imagery stirred a great deal of public and professional interest in the healing power of imagery. It certainly stimulated mine.
I began to work closely with Dr. Oyle for the next three years, seeing patients with him and immersing myself in the explosion of theoretical, experimental, and clinical information about the mental effects on healing that surfaced in the early to mid-1970s. I had already studied Eastern psychologies and had learned several forms of meditation while in school. Now I was studying Jungian psychology, hypnosis, Gestalt therapy, neurolinguistic programming, and psychosynthesis. I took various courses, including Silva Mind Control and Mind Dynamics. I learned about quantum physics, holography, and solipsism. I became more knowledgeable in fields ranging from neurophysiology to parapsychology and found useful information about healing in all these sources. I also paid careful attention to the research that was emerging from the laboratories of people like Neal Miller, Ph.D., at Rockefeller University, Herbert Benson, M.D., at Harvard, and Elmer and Alyce Green, Ph.D., at the Menninger Foundation. They and many others began to put scientific ground under the profuse flowering of psychophysiologic healing approaches.
My association with Dr. Oyle enabled me to meet many of the important pioneers of holistic medicine and to exchange experiences and ideas with them. They all shared a great deal of enthusiasm about the human potential for self-healing, and imagery seemed always to play an important and often central role in their methods.
Most significantly, I watched my patients, who were willing to try these "new" methods (many of which are actually thousands of years old). I saw how pleased they were to be able to relax, to relieve pain, to learn from their illnesses, and to do something to help themselves. I was surprised almost daily at the kinds of problems that responded to imagery of one sort or another. Nearly thirty years later, I'm still frequently surprised.
Science and the Practice of Healing
Literally thousands of scientific studies have demonstrated the attitudinal, emotional, and behavioral effects on physiology and healing since I first became interested in this area. There remains, nevertheless, especially in the medical community, resistance to the idea that people can do anything to influence their own healing. Skeptics claim that many of the methods I will teach you have not been scientifically proven, and they are right. In considering their role in healing, however, we need to take a closer look at the relationship between scientific proof and the clinical practice of medicine.
The institution of medicine bases much of its authority on the claim that it is a scientific discipline, and it rightly looks for scientific proof underlying claims of therapeutic effectiveness. While this is a noble goal, the fact is that the day-to-day practice of medicine includes very little that is scientifically well proven and a good deal that is not proven at all. The "gold standard" of scientific proof is the double-blind randomized controlled study. In such a study, neither patients receiving treatments nor the doctors administrating treatments know what the patient is getting. The outcome is assessed by independent analysts who don't know whether patients received real or placebo treatments. These extreme measures to maintain secrecy are taken in order to separate the always-present placebo effect from the effect of the treatment being tested.
While double-blind studies are the most definitive, very few clinical studies are of this design. In fact, as recently as 1976, fewer than 5 percent of original research articles published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the Lancet were based on controlled matched studies of any kind. Only a fraction of that small percentage were double blind.
If doctors were to limit themselves to using only treatments that have been conclusively proven worthwhile through double-blind studies, they would prescribe very little treatment at all. Yet because our patients are suffering, we must often use our best judgment in suggesting other less rigorously proven treatment. Ideally, we choose from remedies that have a long history of effectiveness and safety in clinical experience or, if no such option is available, from newer methods whose potential benefits outweigh their potential risks by a large enough margin. This conflict between necessity and certainty in treatment is so fundamental to medical practice that it is addressed on page one of Harrison's Textbook of Internal Medicine, one of the most widely used medical textbooks in print. Harrison says:
In the practice of medicine the physician employs a discipline which seeks to utilize scientific methods and principles in the solution of its problems, but is one which, in the end, remains an art ... in the sense that the practicing physician can never be content with the sole aim of clarifying the laws of nature; he cannot proceed in his labors with the cool detachment of the scientist whose aim is the winning of truth, and who, theoretically, is uninterested in the practical outcome of his work. The practicing physician must never forget that his primary and traditional objectives are utilitarian — the prevention and cure of disease and the relief of suffering, whether of body or mind.
Faced with illness, distress, and uncertainty, the informed patient and the practicing physician must often consider options that may not be rigorously proven as they attempt to formulate a sensible plan for treatment and self-care. Even simple clinical research on human beings is difficult because of the many influences on outcome that cannot be controlled. Add to this the difficulty of trying to determine what an individual is really thinking, and we are faced with the very real possibility that it may never be possible to conclusively prove or disprove the theory that thoughts can ameliorate or cure disease.
Another factor that makes imagery particularly difficult to quantify scientifically is that it often influences healing in ways that might best be termed nonlinear. Healing may not be a simple matter of imagining a problem disappearing and having it disappear. Imagery may help a patient become aware of how his or her symptoms develop and lead to changes in attitude or behavior that then lead to recovery. Let me share an illustrative case with you from my practice.
Alexandra was thirty years old, active and successful, but worried. She had developed a number of lumps in her breast. Several eminent physicians had diagnosed them as benign nodules, but she worried that they were precancerous and wanted to know if she could do anything to make them go away. Alexandra was intensely involved in every aspect of her life. She worked long hours, traveled frequently in her work, and kept a busy social schedule as well. She often felt tense and tired, and she wanted less stress in her life, though she saw that stress as a problem separate from her breast lumps.
As part of our consultation, I asked her to relax and let an image of the lumps come to mind. She imagined them as rocks in a stream and was upset to see they were partially obstructing its flow. As she looked more closely, however, her perception of the rocks changed dramatically. She noticed that they were very smooth, shiny, and lustrous and looked more like pearls than rocks. Alexandra immediately understood that, like pearls in an oyster, these lumps had formed in response to irritation and represented an attempt to protect her from further harm.
When I asked her what would need to happen for the pearls to dissolve, she sensed a need to "remove the source of irritation." She consequently made changes in her scheduling, her traveling, and her diet, and the lumps in her breast disappeared within a few months.
By paying attention to her problem in this way, Alexandra not only learned a valuable lesson in stress management, she also personally experienced the wisdom of her body and mind working together to maintain a healthy equilibrium. Her symptoms got her attention, and her imagery allowed her to understand both the meaning of her symptoms and what she needed to do to allow healing to proceed. In her case, the imagery did not dissolve her lumps directly but showed her what she could do to allow that to happen.
Excerpted from Guided Imagery for Self-Healing by Martin L. Rossman. Copyright © 2000 Martin L. Rossman. Excerpted by permission of H J Kramer and New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Dean Ornish, M.D.,
Introduction by Kenneth R. Pelletier, Ph.D.,
One Faith Healing, Placebo Effects, and Imagery,
Two How Does Imagery Work?,
Three A First Imagery Exploration,
Four Imagery, Stress, and Relaxation,
Five Going Deeper Within,
Six Creating Your Own Healing Imagery,
Seven Your Inner Advisor,
Eight What to Do Until Your Advisor Comes and Other Problems,
Nine Listening to Your Symptoms,
Ten Turning Insight into Action,
Eleven Resistance — The Loyal Opposition,
Twelve Checking Your Progress,
Thirteen Imagery, Prevention, and Wellness,
Fourteen Imagery and Spirituality,
Fifteen Imagery in Health Care: Past, Present, and Future,
Sixteen What We Know Now: The New Neuroscience of Mind/Body Healing,
Appendix A: Using Imagery for Specific Health Problems,
Appendix B: Resource Guide,
About The Author,
Guided Imagery For Self-Healing Tapes,
The Academy For Guided Imagery,