What is guided imagery and how is it different from hypnosis?

Guided imagery is a term used to describe a meditative state wherein one imagines desired outcomes in a powerful way.

Image of a colorful spiral

There are recordings available to assist in the relaxation and imagery process or one can learn to do this for oneself (in which case it ceases to be guided) or one can use a counselor/therapist/facilitator.

This could as easily be called hypnosis or self-hypnosis but those terms have always seemed to be misnomers in that they conjure up images of a person out of control of his or her self-will, which isn’t accurate.

The term “guided imagery” is a good description for light hypnosis and is a less confusing term for the uninitiated.

Stage hypnosis is not at all the kind of thing one uses in a therapeutic setting. For therapy to work, the subject has to be alert enough to interact with the facilitator and to share thoughts, ideas and images.

There are several levels of awareness (denoted by different brain waves) in the mind. When we are alert, we are in our beta state. As we drift a little deeper into a sleepy, dreamlike state, we are in alpha. Beyond that are deeper states of awareness (or unawareness)—theta and delta. During the process of hypnotherapy, one is usually in the alpha state, fully capable of understanding what is happening and in control of continuing or stopping. In essence, all hypnosis is self-hypnosis, as it requires the agreement of the subject to follow the guidance of the facilitator and to participate fully in the process.

The TV shows that depict unwilling subjects killing because of a post-hypnotic suggestion are just using “literary license” to create dramatic entertainment. Even in stage hypnosis, the participants are willing participants.; you cannot be made to do something against your will while hypnotized to any level. While you can get therapeutic value out of a theta state on your own, like from a dream, a powerful experience with your inner creativity, or deep meditation, it becomes difficult to communicate with a therapist. As soon as you start communicating, you’d pretty much be moving up in consciousness.

Since it requires your agreement and active participation to experience hypnosis at all, let alone to get therapeutic value from it, your therapist is simply a guide to get you where you need to go. Your therapist rarely knows where you need to go in your subconscious mind; it’s a different place for everyone. Your experiences, memories, emotions, and the way you process them is different from anyone else’s.

There is a phenomenon called somnambulism, otherwise known as sleepwalking. Some hypnotists believe that one can achieve the greatest gains if you can enter into this state. However, others believe that only about 3% of the population can achieve such a state, wherein they are very much in a trance (a slow-wave sleep), can communicate, but do not remember later what happened or what was said. It was just such a person that Brian Weiss described in his book, “Many Lives, Many Masters.” When a person sleepwalks often, it is considered a sleep disorder. (Of course, being a sleepwalker and being capable of being guided to a very deep state of trance may not be exactly the same thing. ) It may be the best state in which to achieve the most astonishing results, and yet it may not be available to everyone.  Gains certainly are made in the alpha brain wave state.

Guided imagery can be used to cope with any stress or trauma and is now often used in clinical settings.

Links to results of studies on guided imagery:

  • http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/8415147
  • http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/9921569
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3857993/