On Your Health

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Guided Imagery to Combat Anxiety and Promote Healing

This Sunday is National Cancer Survivor's Day. To mark the occasion, we spoke with Traci Cook, an INTEGRIS employee and cancer survivor, about a complementary therapy called "guided imagery" that kept her strong and resilient while she was undergoing cancer treatment.

Cook was a 43-year-old mother of three about to start a new job when she was diagnosed with aggressive, stage 2 breast cancer. That was seven years ago, but she recalls vividly how the mind/body therapy helped her manage the stress and painful side effects of treatment.

“For me, it was just 16 days from diagnosis to a double mastectomy,” Cook says. “I held up pretty well in the beginning, but as I went through chemotherapy there was quite a bit of stress and anxiety, more than I could comfortably deal with by myself."

That’s when she learned about guided imagery sessions offered by INTEGRIS to help deal with the stress and promote healing. Though Cook had worked as a marketer in the health care industry for almost 20 years, she didn't know anything about guided imagery and the benefits it can provide. Now, she is a huge fan who still practices guided imagery on a regular basis.

What is guided imagery?

The mind is a powerful healing tool. Imagery (also known as visualization) has harnessed the power of the mind in different therapies for centuries.

Imagery often includes a set program with certain aims and goals. Imagery is usually guided by direct suggestion from a qualified imagery provider. You are guided to visualize your goals and work toward them.

By creating images in your mind, it's believed you can reduce pain and other symptoms linked to your condition. The more detailed the image, the more helpful it will likely be.

How guided imagery works

“That first session was about 40 minutes,” Cook says. “In all, there were 12 sessions. It always started with progressive muscle relaxation, where you learn to relax your body one muscle at a time, starting with your toes and moving up your body.”

Once totally relaxed, the therapist guided her to her “happy place” by helping her imagine sights, sounds, smells, tastes and other sensations. This created a kind of daydream that was intended to remove her from her situation and give her a sense of control. For Cook, that happy place was the beach, which she says is her favorite place to be.

“The therapist taught me how to really relax,” she says. “That type of deep relaxation affects all of your senses. I felt like I was actually lying on the beach. I could smell the beach. I could hear the waves. It was a multi-sensory experience.”

Guided imagery and stress management

Besides relaxing the mind and body, guided imagery has also been shown to help manage anxiety, stress and depression and to reduce pain, lower blood pressure, lessen nausea and give patients a better sense of control and well-being.

Before she discovered guided imagery to help manage the stress that circumstances kept throwing her way, Cook was finding it difficult to stay balanced with the ups and downs in her life — cancer, a demanding new job and raising three children. The stress was impacting her already-fragile physical health. “I had a really hard time keeping my immune system up," says Cook.

"Amazingly, I always felt better after each session," she says. "The imagery helped me block out everything extraneous to reconnect with myself. Afterwards, I felt stronger and in control once again."

Guided imagery services at INTEGRIS

Cook, who is now a senior marketing representative at the newly opened Arcadia Trails INTEGRIS Center for Addiction Recovery in Edmond, says she still relies on the techniques learned during her treatment to continue managing the stresses of her busy life by practicing guided imagery once or twice a week. She cautions that it’s very important to remember to do progressive muscle relaxation before visualizing the sights, sounds and smells that make up your “happy place."

"It's a very healthy way to center yourself,” Cook says. While most use audio recordings or a qualified live person to assist with the imagery, she says after the training she received at INTEGRIS, she can now practice the technique without outside guidance.

If you are in recovery from cancer, or if you are dealing with symptoms of anxiety or depression, remember that the mind can be a powerful aid in restoring your health.

If you are interested in learning more, INTEGRIS has mind/body therapy services available at The Wellness Center of the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute and the Troy and Dollie Smith Wellness Center at the INTEGRIS Baptist Medical Center campus.

Breast Cancer

INTEGRIS Health Cancer Institute North

Arcadia Trails Center for Addiction Recovery