August 17, 2023

Have you ever used visualization or imagery?


Our bodies are great at remembering hard times: The smell of alcohol in a hospital makes my heart race.  I can’t wear turtlenecks because they remind me of the compression bandage on my throat after my thyroidectomy.

But the flip side is that our bodies can conjure great experiences too.  Here’s one: My body remembers the days when I was a dancer.  Heat and humidity meant my muscles were always flexible, pliable, and ready to go.  I could enter the studio and launch into the fun stuff with little need to warm up.  Now whenever I’m in heat and humidity, I feel totally motivated to do physical exercise.  (Crazy I know.)

Before my second surgery, I requested to speak with a chaplain.  I got a Lutheran minister.  I was born Jewish, but I’m not religious, and don’t believe in god.  Still, I love hospital chaplains.  In fact, if there were such a thing as God in my mind, he/she might appear to me in the form of a hospital chaplain.

He got me to start visualizing what it was like to relax in bed with my husband.  Yes, it sounded kinda trashy and weird coming from a minister, and freaked me out at first.  But I realized that he knew I loved my husband to pieces, it was really hard being in a hospital in a different city than where I live, and he was trying to make me feel at home and relaxed.  He asked me all about my bedroom.  I told him about the pale yellow walls, my mahogany bureau that belonged to my grandma, and how great it is to dive into bed and put my head on my husband’s chest.  It totally worked.  When the chaplain left I didn’t want my husband or family to come back into the room.  I was so peaceful and relaxed I wanted to be alone.

The words visualization and imagery sound so hokey and new agey to me.  But I guess that is what it was.  And it totally worked.

Have you ever used visualization or imagery to coax yourself into a better mental space during illness?  Was it useful?  Did you use the generic peaceful river scene or a place you had actually experienced before?

Many of you have said your favorite part of my book is HollyAnna’s kick ass cancer and river visualization scene read.  Read it in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. Garnet Says:
    August 17th, 2009 at 4:12 PM

    Absotootly I have! And it DOES work! Not only to bring about relaxation and peace or to reduce pain and discomfort but it also helps bring something you desire to fruition.
    To calm my anxiety down before I was old enough for medications, my mom would walk me through a visualization of slowly walking down a staircase of about 10-15 stairs and with each step, I would relax my body more and become more asleep than the previous step.
    For a while after diagnosis, I visualized two different scenes. One was a purple laser-beam type of light entering my tumor and blowing it to shreds…over and over again. I didn’t much care for that one after a while because I was soon concerned with “but where do those pieces go??? They have to go somewhere else in my body, right? No thank you!”
    The other was during my chemo treatments: I’d visualize thousands of little bubbly stick figure people, each a different color (one color per drug) parachuting onto the tumor(s) and then begining to work on chipping away at it with various hardware and tools. That was a fun one. So much so that I went out and bought some nice art supplies and drew it up so my husband could see what I saw.
    These days, though, I just visualize things coming to fruition like, the seller of the house we wanted to buy accepting our bid, and/or us actually moving in, me giving the movers frantic directions as to where each box or piece of furniture should go! LOL
    Before sleep every night in bed for years I’d visualize something, anything nice to get myself to sleep. It got much more difficult to do so after diagnosis but I’m still working on it.

  2. Greyash Says:
    August 17th, 2009 at 4:39 PM

    I do - I use meditation and visualization to direct white light into my tumors to try to zap them. I also use it to find stregth on my worst days - to calm myself, to find that extra energy I just don’t have. I am trying to teach my 2.5 year old to visualize calm things to help him fall asleep at night now too, and so he can use it when I’m having treatments and surgery to calm himself as he grows up, seeing as it seems we will be dealing with this whole thing for longer than we thought…

  3. Jane Currie Says:
    August 17th, 2009 at 8:09 PM

    Hi Kairol
    I was first diagnosed in 1993 at 32 years old- and Dr Bernie Siegel of “Love Medicine and Miracles” fame introduced visualisation to me. It was 9 months after chemo and I went down with viral meningitus - I was very ill. I had a lumbar puncture done and in the morning i was due to have some bone marrow taken for testing. Well hell freezeth over first before you touch my bones- I spent the whole night awake visualising my body making white blood cells- streaming out of my bones throughout my body and while my white blood cell levels had not been normal for over 9 months- that morning the doctors (and even me) was SHOCKED to find them at normal levels. It made me realise that our mind is MUCH more powerful than I had ever imagined. While I sometimes cannot determine outcome I can sure INFLUENCE it.

  4. Wendy S. Harpham, MD Says:
    August 17th, 2009 at 9:52 PM

    Dear Kairol,
    I use visualization all the time, to prepare myself for upcoming challenges over which I have some control. Of course, I visualize it the way I want to perform, whether it is a lecture, interview or just meeting someone new.

    As for using visualization when dealing with cancer treatment, I wrote this story (which can also be found in ONLY 10 SECONDS TO CARE):
    to emphasize the limits and benefits from a physician-survivor’s point of view.
    With hope, Wendy

  5. Lori Hope Says:
    August 18th, 2009 at 11:02 AM

    I know what you mean about hokey and New-Age-y-sounding terms. But call them what you will, imagery and visualization are not only effective means of coping, but may also promote health and healing.

    A couple of weeks after I was diagnosed with cancer, my son, who was 17 and had just learned about relaxation and meditation at school (not a New Age-y school, but an excellent private arts high school in SF), took me through a guided visualization that helped me totally relax for the first time since I’d heard the words, “It’s cancer.”

    I write about visualization in my book (pp 125-127), and emphasize that what’s most important is to find an image that suits you. Whether it’s laying in bed with your husband, playing PacMan, soaking up the sun on a tropical island, or having your dog lick up errant cancer cells (that was my fave), I encourage people to do whatever they can to relax and conjure healing energy.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic, Kairol, and sharing your beautiful visualization and story.

    Always hope,
    Author of “Help Me Live: 20 things people with cancer want you to know”

  6. Adena Says:
    August 18th, 2009 at 12:45 PM

    Kairol: just read an article in Psychology Today mag about survivorship that has me so angry…have you seen it?
    What are you thoughts? I’m working on a blog post about it but I’m actually too angry to write!

  7. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    August 19th, 2009 at 2:47 PM

    Thanks for your comments everyone. Great to read what your images are and how they have worked for you. I’m actually on vacation this week and ducked into a library briefly to hop on the computer. This vacation has had so many incredible moments that I have filed away in my mind as fantastically relaxing experiences that I can call upon for the next time I need a good image. The best: Sitting on the front of a very slow moving boat as it cruised down the narrow water way in a swamp with Spanish moss draped from the tree branches over the water and lily pads and lotus flowers bobbing along side the boat. Who says swamps ain’t beautiful?

  8. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    August 19th, 2009 at 2:50 PM

    Thanks for the link Adena. I’ll check it out when I get back into town. Any thing that gets you that fired up seems worth blogging about! Kairol

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