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Guided Imagery for Panic Disorder

How to Relax with Guided Imagery

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Updated December 04, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Photo Copyright Microsoft

Guided imagery allows you to see yourself in a safe and serene environment.

Photo © Microsoft

Learning to relax is a skill that is important in maintaining psychical and emotional wellbeing. Relaxation techniques are strategies that can be used to help in reducing stress and eliciting feelings of calmness and clarity. Through practice, these skills can be developed to assist in managing anxiety and getting through panic attacks.

Some of the most common relaxation techniques include deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), and meditation. Guided imagery is another type of relaxation technique that can help you feel more peaceful. The following offers an overview of guided imagery for panic disorder, including a brief exercise to help you get started with this relaxation technique.

What Is Guided Imagery?

Guided imagery is a relaxation exercise that involves focused visualization. This technique directs you to use your imagination to picture being in a particular place or situation. To assist in feeling more relaxed and calm, guided imagery allows you to envision exactly what it would be like to be in an ideally peaceful, serene, and comforting scene.

Typically, guided imagery is conducted by a qualified mental health specialist, or through the use of an audio recording or written instruction. The process is deepened through guide-directed prompts that require the person to imagine the scene through all of her senses. For instance, a person being guided into her peaceful scene will be directed to bring attention to what she hears, sees, smells, tastes, and touches.

As a holistic healing approach, guided imagery is largely based on the concept that the mind and body are interconnected and influence each other. Guided imagery works to make you feel as if you're actually in the imagined relaxing environment. It's believed that through imagination, you can actually feel the positive effects of your imagery, such as feeling more calm and grounded.

Guided imagery can be an effective coping technique for panic disorder, and can be used to help a panic sufferer get through anxiety-inducing situations and panic attacks. Guided imagery can also be a powerful tool in assisting those with panic disorder with agoraphobia to imagine being in a safe place when they are actually in an environment that is leading to overwhelming fear and nervousness. Additionally, this technique has been found to help relieve other common panic disorder symptoms, including reducing worry, improving mood, promoting quality sleep, and decreasing morning anxiety.

Practicing Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is a technique meant to help in coping with your symptoms. Only your doctor or qualified professional can provide you with an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan. Guided imagery falls into the category of less conventional treatment options known as "complementary and alternative medicines" (CAM).

These types of techniques are intended to “complement,” or be used in conjunction with more traditional treatment options, for panic disorder. Your doctor or mental health specialist can determine if guided imagery is suited for your particular needs and assist you with working it into your treatment plan.

If you are looking for a practitioner that provides guided imagery services, you may want to ask your therapist. Many mental health specialists utilize this technique within their practice. You can also locate a provider in your area through the use of an online directory, such as the Academy of Guided Imagery (AGI) . Additionally, guided imagery audio recordings and instructional books can also purchased.

An Exercise in Guided Imagery

The following script can be used to help you practice guided imagery on your own. This is a very basic exercise that you can do anywhere and at any time.

  • Start by creating a peaceful environment, away from any distractions. Remove heavy jewelry and restrictive clothing, such as your belt or shoes.
  • Begin your guided imagery in a comfortable seated position. You want to be comfortable enough to be able to focus, but not so relaxed that you may fall asleep.
  • Close your eyes and begin a deep breathing exercise. Inhale slowly through your nose, allowing your breath to fill your body. Then gradually exhale, expelling all of your breath out. Imagine that your inhalations bring energy into the body, and your exhalations release tension and stress.
  • Once you feel more calm and focused, start to imagine yourself in a safe and relaxing place. Many people find the beach to be a soothing image. Other calming scenes include waterfalls, a clearing in the forest, a meadow filled with flowers, or a burning fireplace.
  • When you've decided on your tranquil place, start imagining what it's like to be there. Use all of your senses to help go further into the experience. Notice what you hear, taste, smell, and touch. Listen to the sound of the crashing waves. Smell the grass and flowers. Feel the warmth of the fire.
  • Stay here for a while, taking it all in, noticing how the serenity of your environment helps you feel less worried and anxious.
  • Feeling calm, refreshed, and satisfied, gradually come out of your imagined scene. To emerge from your guided imagery, count backwards, starting from 10. Once you reach one, remind yourself that this place is here for you whenever you would like to return.
  • Take a few more deep breaths, open your eyes, and stretch any which way that feels best for your body.

Other Tips and Considerations

  • Guide imagery can be done at any time of day and in any environment. All that you need is 5 to 10 minutes of quiet time to go into your safe place.
  • Music can help set the mood and bring you deeper into your relaxation. Try listening to soothing music while you're practicing this technique.
  • Guided imagery is a skill that you can get better at with practice. Eventually, you may be able to use this technique to help manage anxiety and panic attacks.

Sources:

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine? Accessed November 1, 2012.

Rossman, M. L. (2000). Guided Imagery for Self-Healing. Tiburon, CA: H. J. Kramer.

Sutton, A. (2010). Complementary and Alternative Therapy Sourcebook, 4th Edition. Detroit, MI : Omnigraphics.

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