Guided Imagery – Complement to Conventional Therapy

During the last 10–15 years, many of us involved in the world of health and healing have been intrigued by alternative medicine and complementary therapies. Some of these therapies have been embraced for a long time, even though they haven’t been researched for effectiveness. They are often used by people because we believe that are going to work, and in some instances they actually do work to help us feel better. But because they often haven’t been fully researched, we’re not totally sure if they seem to work because of a placebo effect or because they are actually doing something to make a difference.

Over the last 10 years or so, we have come to understand a new concept called psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI for short. This concept suggests that there is a reason to believe that the thing we call the mind-body interaction actually has a basis in fact. PNI is the study of how the mind affects the body and how the body affects the mind. It suggests that, on a cellular level, we can influence how we feel and how we are reacting to life simply by imagining pleasant circumstances. PNI is also interested in the effects of how we think on our immune system.

One of the PNI treatment strategies that has been researched extensively is guided imagery. This type of therapy consists of becoming very relaxed and then imagining anything from a pleasant scene or sense of a scene to actually imagining using your own immune system to fight off illness. With an illness like cancer, for instance, a person using guided imagery might imagine his body’s own defense system working with his chemotherapy to fight off the cancer. Guided imagery can actually be far more complex than this, but you get the idea.

With diabetes, imagery may be used to bolster how you see yourself in relation to the condition. For example, one of the images I teach people to use is that of a mountain. A mountain weathers all storms, temperatures, seasonal changes, winds, and rain to remain solid. Mountains are enduring of change, and have their own unique character, strength, and beauty. They have the ability to withstand the forces of nature, hold on to their strength, and have openness to all seasons. They live with change and yet are not broken by it.

I believe that people who live with diabetes need many of these characteristics—the ability to persist, endure change, and still maintain the strength to face whatever comes their way. I know from my own practice of meditation and guided imagery that these practices can work to effectively bolster our self-care.

For more information on guided imagery, PNI, or complementary therapies, some people to look up online include the following: Candace Pert, Joan Borysenko, and Jeanne Achterberg. You can also look to my Web site,, for an example of “The Mountain Meditation,” which is the guided imagery I mentioned before.

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Joe Nelson: Joe is a psychotherapist in private practice in Minnesota, where he specializes in the psychology of chronic disease and sexual problems and works with couples, families, children, and teens. He has been a Licensed Psychologist since 1985 and has earned a master’s degree from St. Mary’s College Winona, a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota, and an associate’s degree in human services from the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Joe has worked with troubled youth in Chicago and Minnesota and on a special project on Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. He was the first social worker hired by an affiliate of the American Diabetes Association. He worked at the International Diabetes Center for 20 years, directing psychological services there for 12 years. A Certified Sex Therapist, Joe co-developed the Sexual Health Center at Park Nicollet Clinic.

Having practiced meditation for over 30 years, Joe offers instruction in mindfulness-based meditation to patients in groups and as individuals. Joe is married, has a 23-year-old daughter, and enjoys scuba diving, motorcycling, golf, and being outdoors doing almost anything.

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