Guided imagery and visualisation in counselling and psychotherapy

Many people find 'guided imagery' helpful for relaxation. There is evidence to show that it can help reduce anxiety and depression, manage stress, help with some medical symptoms and improve sleep. There are many resources available on the internet which you can freely access, including relaxation scripts and videos, for example. Imagery and visualisation-based techniques may also be used in counselling and psychotherapy in more sophisticated ways to help clients work on their issues. This article explains more about this and introduces a depth approach, Guided Imagery and Music (GIM).


Imagery in everyday life

Dreaming is something familiar that involves 'mental imagery' or 'pictures' which we see in our minds, even though we may not always remember the experience when we wake up. Mental imagery also features in our everyday waking experience. For instance, it's involved in our memories of what happened in the past when we picture the associated people and events. In a similar way, we may picture what we anticipate will happen in the future. 

Much research has been undertaken into the topic by psychologists. For instance, it's been found that mental imagery often accompanies emotionally charged experiences, both positive and negative. It's also been found that imagery-based processing tends to have a more powerful impact on emotion than verbal processing alone. This means that because emotionally-oriented work is so central in counselling and psychotherapy, imagery-based techniques can have an important role to play. 

These techniques can also be useful where it's been discovered that many, perhaps even most mental health conditions, involve 'negative intrusive imagery'. This refers to images that repeatedly come into people's minds, undermining their well-being. Examples include the flashbacks experienced by those who've experienced trauma, or the images of embarrassing social situations experienced by those suffering from social phobia. There are many other types of negative intrusive imagery. One important research finding is that this type of imagery may not only create, but also sustain many of the mental health difficulties which people commonly experience. Therapy involving imagery-based techniques can potentially help transform such 'negative' imagery.

Many other discoveries have been made about mental imagery of relevance to therapy. One such discovery relates to our earliest life experiences. Even though we may not remember these, they nevertheless lay the foundations for our entire life experience and may underpin difficulties in adult life. It's been found that imagery is particularly effective in accessing these foundations of experiencing beyond the reach of words. So, in this way also, imagery can help clients address the core of the issues affecting their well-being.

Types of imagery in counselling and psychotherapy

Imagery or visualisation-based work in therapy usually involves experiencing imagery with the eyes closed in a relaxed state. It's a little bit like dreaming awake. Whilst it might be assumed that this involves visualising something as it often does, picturing it in the mind, imagery-based work doesn't always involve this. Indeed, people image in different ways. An imagery experience may be more body-based than visual, for instance, and other senses can also be involved including hearing, touch, and smell.

Just as imaging occurs naturally at night when we dream, people are often surprised by how easily they can image with a trained therapist, though it may take getting used to.  Whilst the experience is imagined, it can nevertheless feel very real in its own way. Because of this, imagery experiences can have a transformative effect on consciousness that continues long after the experience is over.

Imagery can be 'literal' as when we picture familiar people and places in our minds. In therapy, working with literal imagery can be very helpful. This can occur in different ways including when conversations with important others are imagined, bringing useful new perspectives to bear, and supporting real conversations taking place that may otherwise be very difficult.

Imagery can also emerge in a more imaginative and spontaneous way from within, as the imagery in dreams does, providing rich opportunities for therapeutic work. This type of imagery is often metaphorical in nature. For example, the image of being on a path and experiencing some kind of difficulty on it, may relate closely to a client's difficulties experienced on their 'path' through life. 'Active imagination' is an important approach of this type where the dialogue between the conscious and unconscious mind involved can be especially productive therapeutically.

Therapists trained in imagery-based techniques are likely to be able to work with different types of imagery, ranging from literal imagery, to metaphorical imagery, to dreams, to spiritual imagery. There are many ways in which this might be done. 'Imagery rescripting' is another important technique used to transform experiences of abuse or trauma. Whilst the past cannot be changed, being able to imagine different outcomes and feel empowered can be very helpful in processing trauma so that it no longer undermines well-being.  

Guided Imagery and Music (GIM)

A depth approach, Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), has the advantage of using music to enhance the experience and the therapeutic potential of working with mental imagery. GIM has been in existence for over 50 years and is practised worldwide.

As I explore in another Counselling Directory article, 'How can music help in talking therapy?', music is useful because it is closer to experience as we live and feel it than words are. I describe how music tells 'stories' about human experience which people connect with emotionally, helping them manage and make sense of their own experiences.

In that other article, I focus on Music and Imagery (MI), which is part of the contemporary spectrum of GIM methods. MI involves the client in creating an image using art materials whilst listening to music of their choice.

The GIM methods involving mental imagery with which this article is concerned are a little different. The client is supported to relax with eyes closed in a reclining position, and then to image whilst listening to music. The therapist supports the experience verbally but in a way that is non-directive. In other words, the process involves the client imaging spontaneously to explore issues in their own way which the therapist supports.

This is very different from guided imagery for relaxation where you are told what to imagine - for instance lying on a beach on a warm sunny day feeling peaceful. This latter type of experience can certainly be very helpful but differs from the more freely evolving imagery experienced in GIM. This latter is often of a metaphorical, dream-like nature, where its unfolding narrative structure makes possible work with issues ranging from anxiety and depression, to bereavement, to the ongoing impact of abuse and trauma, to work-related stress and so on. GIM can be especially effective in the way it helps clients discover solutions to problems from within themselves and experience depth transformation that may otherwise be inaccessible. This occurs as clients identify in their own uniquely personal way with the 'story' of human feeling and experience in the music.

Next steps

If GIM is something that you would like to find out more about or try, please use my profile to get in contact with me. You can either book a free consultation or email me to arrange a session. I look forward to hearing from you. Please note that I normally only offer GIM in-person. If you are looking for online therapy, Music and Imagery (MI), which I also offer, can work well.

Further reading

The following articles and books are written mostly for therapy professionals rather than clients. They include more detailed information and references to research for those wanting to know more about imagery in everyday life, in therapy, and in GIM.

Hackmann, A., Bennett-Levy, J, and Holmes, E. A. (2011). Oxford Guide to Imagery in Cognitive Therapy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, R. A. (1991). Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth. New York: HarperOne.

Lawes, M. (2017). Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) and the rise of imagery-based practice and research in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Lawes, M. (2017). What is The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM)?

Lawes, M. (2018). What is 'imagery' in Guided Imagery and Music (GIM)?

Thomas, V. (2016). Using Mental Imagery in Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

Thomas, V. (2019). Using Mental Imagery to Enhance Creative and Work-Related Processes. Abingdon: Routledge.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Dorchester, Dorset, DT1
Written by Martin Lawes, HCPC registered, DipMT (Bristol), FAMI
Dorchester, Dorset, DT1

I offer Music and Imagery (MI) therapy and other types of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) online and in-person. These methods integrate talking therapy with creative processing and involve music listening, art-making, or visualization. I’m passionate about the use of the creative arts in talking therapy and train other therapists in MI and GIM.

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