Guided Imagery as an Effective Therapeutic Technique: A Brief Review of Its History and Efficacy Research

By Utay, Joe; Miller, Megan | Journal of Instructional Psychology, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Guided Imagery as an Effective Therapeutic Technique: A Brief Review of Its History and Efficacy Research


Utay, Joe, Miller, Megan, Journal of Instructional Psychology


Guided imagery is a flexible intervention whose efficacy has been indicated through a large body of research over many decades in counseling and allied fields. It has earned the right to be considered a research-based approach to helping. This article provides a brief introduction to the history of guided imagery and examples of selected research indicating its efficacy.

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Prepare to learn in an interesting way ... Some learning will be obvious and some may occur at a different level ... You are about to begin a journey back in time to meet researchers in the helping profession who will help you better understand the scientific validation for the use of guided imagery ... As you read this, you may or may not notice your rate of reading ... or rate of breathing ... As you continue feeling as relaxed and safe as you feel comfortable ... you might be curious about the topic, maybe excited, maybe you have healthy doubts too ... Whatever you are feeling about guided imagery is okay ... You are free at any time to pause to contemplate ... or move on to another article for any reason. Now better prepared, you can begin this brief primer on some history and selected research on therapeutic uses of guided imagery ...

Guided imagery was defined by Bresler and Rossman, co-founders of the Academy for Guided Imagery, as a, "range of techniques from simple visualization and direct imagery-based suggestion through metaphor and storytelling" (2003). It is not a new approach to helping but well established in Native American and other indigenous traditions; Hinduism, Judeo-Christian, and other religious traditions; and traditional Chinese medicine, to name a few historically-based uses. Though guided imagery is currently understood to be mainly an "alternative" or "complementary" therapeutic technique, it has been used in psychotherapy for over a century. So, though guided imagery has long been used in many religious and healing traditions, the focus of this review is limited to the past 100 years.

When writing on the history of guided imagery, Schoettle (1980) described many early 20th century examples of its use, starting with therapeutically working with daydreams. For example, Schoettle pointed out that Freud's psychoanalysis is based on the, "unraveling of the patient's fantasies, daydreams, and dreams" and, "continues to be a cornerstone in current analytical techniques" (p. 220). In the 1920s, Kretschmer and Desoille began using the daydream in therapy. Kretschmer referred to these inner visions as bildstreifendenken, or thinking in the form of a movie. Desoille referred to his therapeutic technique as the guided daydream (Schoettle, 1980).

Jacob Morena developed the therapeutic technique of psychodrama in the 1940s, in which trained participants, referred to as "auxiliary egos," playing key individuals in a person's life, re-enacted the patient's personal problems on stage. This can be now understood as a way of guiding the externalization of the client's internal imagery. In 1954, Hans Carl Leuner developed a technique he called experimentelles katathymes bilderleben, or experimentally introduced cathathymic imagery, and further developed psychodrama, which he called Symboldrama psychotherapy or guided affective imagery. William Swartley introduced Leuner's technique in the United States in 1965 as a diagnostic tool, calling it initiated symbol projection (Schoettle, 1980).

In the late 1960s, Joseph Wolpe introduced several imagery-related techniques in behavior-modification therapy: systematic desensitization, aversive-imagery methods, symbolic-modeling techniques and implosive therapy. Since that time there have been many advocates of guided imagery including the Simontons, Achterberg, Klapish, Lawlis, Oyle, Bresler, and Rossman (Schoettle, 1980).

Efficacy Research.

Not a lot is written on why guided imagery is often helpful. According to Nightningale (1998), guided imagery helps clients connect with their internal cognitive, affective, and somatic resources. …

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