The Complementary Medical Association

Delivering excellence in complementary medicine since 1993


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Visualisation is a technique whereby patients use their imagination to conjure up positive mental images to enable them to relax. By imagining a positive outcome a person will find it easier to cope with stress or overcome physical or emotional difficulties. Visualisation can also be used as a great motivation tool for success.

This document provides general information on what to expect when you visit a therapist, as well as explaining briefly how the discipline works. It must be noted, however, that every practitioner works in an individual way, and may subscribe to slightly different theories as to how the practice is carried out. It is always advisable that you ask to see relevant qualifications and discuss the treatment offered to you by the practitioner if you are in any doubt whatsoever.

What is Visualisation? 

Visualisation is often used in conjunction with relaxation and although the two are different they do work very well together. People are often able to visualise more effectively when relaxed and conversely when stressed, visualisation can bring about feelings of deep relaxation.

Visualisation is not only used to help people relax – it also helps people achieve their true potential or overcome emotional and physical difficulties. It is not clear how it actually works, but theory has it that these techniques are believed to encourage activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, the part that deals with emotions and creativity.

It is the left hemisphere of the brain that primarily deals with logic, analysis, word ability and reason – basically everyday life (and we know how stressful everyday life can be!). By using the right-hand side of brain we diminish the activity of the left side and this in turn brings about a feeling of relaxation.

The autonomic nervous system, the system which is beyond our conscious control, has two branches, the parasympathetic branch, which brings about relaxation, and the sympathetic branch, the one which gears us up for action, the “fight or flight” response.

Through relaxation and visualisation, the parasympathetic branch becomes more dominant. As a result the heart rate slows down, muscles relax, breathing becomes more regular and the digestive system begins to work more efficiently – in fact it is the exact opposite of what happens when you are stressed out or in panic mode. The body’s own healing energies are more able to work on problem areas when it is in a relaxed state.

Main uses

People who are aiming for success (e.g., sports people, actors, or students taking exams) often practise visualisation. Those who suffer with panic attacks and other stress related conditions such as phobias and anxieties can also benefit, as can cancer patients, people who need pain relief, and those who suffer with heart conditions.

What to expect when you visit a therapist

You will be asked questions relating to your medical history and perhaps that of your immediate family. Lifestyle questions regarding such matters as your dietary habits, sleep patterns, exercise regime, and stress levels will also be put to you, to ensure that a holistic approach is taken. You will be asked what expectations you have and what you would ideally like to achieve. Your blood pressure and pulse, and perhaps the temperature of your skin, will be noted.

You can take part in visualisation sessions either in a group situation or in a one-to-one session with a practitioner. You will first be led though a relaxation exercise as it is easier to visualise if you are relaxed. You will be asked to make yourself comfortable, either sitting in a chair or lying on a couch or the floor, so it is advisable you wear comfortable clothes.

You will be invited to close your eyes while you are guided verbally by the practitioner and encouraged to conjure up a vivid image of something peaceful or beautiful. This will be the image you will draw upon when you feel fear, panic or stress.

Visualisation is also used as a tool for motivation, the client being encouraged to imagine what it would be like to have passed their exam or see the audience applaud their fantastic stage performance, and so on.

You will need to practice at home in-between appointments for at least 15 minutes a day, you may even be given a book or audio-recording to follow.

Each session with a therapist will last about 30 to 60 minutes. The number of visits needed is something that needs to be discussed with your therapist.

History (in brief)

Tibetan Buddhists have practised visualisation techniques for centuries, as have a great number of cultures past and present. In the West, Dr Carl Simonton and his wife Stephanie Matthew-Simonton used visualisation techniques on cancer patients in the late 1960’s. They encouraged them to visualise white cells destroying the cancer and claimed that those who used visualisation in this way lived twice as long as those who didn’t.

Many health centres (particularly integrated oncology centres in the USA that use both complementary and conventional medical approaches) now use visualisation as part of their cancer treatment programmes.

Psychologists have treated negative attitudes displayed by patients with visualisation techniques since the 1920’s.

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