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Visualisation (guided imagery)

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This page tells you about visualisation for people with cancer. There is information about

 

What visualisation is

The idea behind visualisation is that you use the power of your imagination to help relieve symptoms or manage problems. Learning to direct and control images in your mind can help you to relax. This may help to

  • Relieve stress
  • Control some of the symptoms caused by your cancer or cancer treatments
  • Boost your immune system to help your body fight off infections and promote healing

You may also hear visualisation called guided imagery.

 

What visualisation involves

A therapist can help you learn how to practice visualisation. You create images in your mind that can help you to relax, feel less anxious, sleep and reduce pain. You use all of your senses – sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. For example, you may want to think of a place or activity that made you happy in the past. 

While you are learning the technique, your therapist talks you through the sort of images that it may be helpful to picture. They may ask you to imagine a peaceful place where you’d like to be. Or they might teach you to imagine yourself feeling well and strong. Many people find that they feel better after they imagine feeling stronger. Some people like to picture their body fighting off the cancer cells.

A therapist may be able to teach you the best visualisation techniques for the times when you feel most stressed. They can show you short visualisation exercises or deeper relaxation techniques.

You can practice visualisation without a therapist, using a music file, CD or tape. You can buy these online, from some book stores or health shops, and from some cancer support groups or centres. Ask your nurse if they can recommend any. Or you could contact one of the complementary therapy organisations.

If you have to stay in bed or can't leave your home, imagery may help. You may feel less closed in if you have been indoors for a long time.

 

Research into visualisation in cancer care

Relaxation and imagery are two of the most popular types of complementary therapy that people with cancer use. Research has looked into visualisation to help control symptoms and treatment side effects in people with cancer. It is difficult to do this type of research and the results are sometimes not clear. We need more research to see how guided imagery and visualisation can help people with cancer.

Visualisation to improve mood and quality of life

In 2010 the PERI study reported its results. It looked at visualisation and guided imagery for patients with bowel cancer. The study included 151 patients and found that relaxation and guided imagery did not significantly change people’s mood or quality of life. But an earlier review of 6 studies in 2005 suggested that guided imagery may be helpful in managing stress, anxiety, and depression for people with cancer. 

One study has shown that visualisation greatly improves the mood of people having treatment for breast cancer. A clinical trial in 1999 involving women with early stage breast cancer found that guided imagery helped to ease anxiety related to radiotherapy. The anxiety included fears about the radiotherapy machine, pain from breast surgery, and recurrence of cancer.

Visualisation to control symptoms and side effects

In 2012 an American study looked at guided imagery for patients having radiotherapy for breast cancer. The study found that patients who had guided imagery had lower breathing and pulse rates and lower blood pressure. They also had a slightly higher skin temperature which showed that they felt more relaxed. Overall, more than 8 out of 10 participants in the study described the guided imagery sessions as helpful. All of the people who took part said that they would recommend guided imagery to others.

A review of studies for women with breast cancer who had hot flushes was carried out in 2010. It looked at medicine treatments and non medicine treatments that aimed to reduce hot flushes. The non medicine treatments included homeopathy, relaxation therapy (including guided imagery), acupuncture and magnetic therapy. Some of the medicine treatments reduced the number of hot flushes. The authors of the review said that relaxation therapy was the only non medicine treatment that seemed to reduce the number and severity of hot flushes. But this was just 1 study and we need more research to know whether guided imagery can reduce hot flushes in women with breast cancer. You can read the report of the review of treatments for hot flushes on the Cochrane Library website.

A systematic review in 2005 looked at the use of guided imagery as part of cancer treatment. To draw its conclusions, the review pulled together the published results of several trials investigating the use of imagery for people with cancer. Although the trials were designed differently and, in some cases poorly, the review summed up the research by saying that guided imagery might be able to provide psychological support and comfort. There was no real evidence to prove that it helped with physical symptoms such as sickness and vomiting. But in general, the researchers felt the results were positive enough to justify more research. 

A review of 46 studies in 1999 also suggested that imagery may reduce pain, and some of the side effects of chemotherapy. One study has suggested that imagery can reduce anticipatory nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy. A 2006 review of clinical trials of imagery found that only three of the studies showed improvement in anxiety and discomfort during chemotherapy. Two other studies showed similar results between people who used imagery and those who used other methods of reducing anxiety. Overall, imagery is considered one of the more useful psychological measures to reduce some side effects of chemotherapy. But more well designed research is needed to see how it can best be used.

Visualisation to boost the immune system

Some studies suggest that imagery can directly affect the immune system. But current scientific evidence does not support that these techniques can cure cancer or any other disease. Some well designed studies have shown that imagery can improve quality of life in some patients, but have not found that it can help people to live longer.

 

Possible side effects

Visualisation and guided imagery are considered safe, especially under the guidance of a trained health professional. It is best to use them alongside your conventional cancer treatment. There are no reports of side effects.

 

The cost of visualisation

Many health care organisations or cancer support groups provide free visualisation or guided imagery sessions led by a health professional. Some organisations may make a small charge or ask for a donation.

 

Finding a visualisation therapist

Anyone can call themselves a visualisation therapist, so beware of paying a therapist without checking what training they’ve had. There are specific courses for training people to become experts in relaxation, visualisation and guided imagery techniques. Some nurses and doctors have training in this area. And psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists all have training in the use of relaxation and visualisation techniques.

For information about how to find a therapist and the questions you should ask, look in our about complementary and alternative therapies section.

You can also look at our list of complementary and alternative therapy organisations.

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Updated: 15 January 2013