When my doctor recommended I get an MRI as part of a preventative screening, I deferred to her expertise.
I just couldn’t exactly remember what an MRI was (it stands for magnetic resonance imaging). Wasn’t that the one where they pass you through a donut-shaped ring? That sounded right.
Upon arriving at the radiology center for my scheduled exam, I was surprised and horrified to learn that there was no friendly donut waiting for me.
Instead, I’d be fully inserted into the equivalent of a giant tube-like rigatoni noodle.
I’m intensely claustrophobic, and that prospect instantly made my heart race and my hands go clammy.
I take the stairs when possible to avoid elevators. I can get panicky just from wearing tight clothing. I considered taking Xanax before going on the Finding Nemo submarine ride at Disneyland.
The sight of the giant metal pool noodle made me want to bolt, open-backed gown and all. Still, I knew if I didn’t undergo the test that day, I’d face it all over again in the future.
I dutifully climbed onto the table and was slowly conveyed into my own personal chamber of horrors.
As I felt the MRI close around me, its clanging began to reverberate in my ears, I felt the tell-tale tightness of my throat and catastrophizing thoughts.
I tried to tap into my wellspring of inner peace and the toolkit I’ve built through years of practicing breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, and personal prayer.
But as I tried to stay in the present moment, I continued to feel overwhelmed. The present moment, in this case, was simply too distressing.
I realized that to reduce the stress, I needed to give my panicky mind a job rather than force it to stare straight into my present situation.
I turned to guided imagery to stem the tide of panic.
What is guided imagery?
Guided imagery is the practice of imagining a positive environment or activity to engage and calm the mind. It’s a type of visualization meditation that redirects the mind from stressful thoughts to soothing ones to induce a state of relaxation.
So where could I go in my mind to find calm and stability? I knew right away: my kitchen! It’s kind of my happy place.
And the most natural thing to do in my kitchen? Make muffins. I bake a batch for my family nearly every week.
Placing myself mentally at my kitchen counter, I began to walk myself through the familiar steps of muffin-making. I pictured myself removing the necessary ingredients from my pantry (flour, salt, baking soda) and my fridge (eggs, milk, and butter).
Engaging the senses
As the MRI droned in my ears, I tried to engage with the physical sensations of each ingredient: the chilly heft of the milk jug in my hand, the scratchiness of the brown paper bag of whole wheat flour.
I let my (imagined) nostrils fill with the smell of vanilla extract and cinnamon.
Then, of course, it was time to assemble the recipe. I heard the scraping of a teaspoon on the top of the baking soda box, and even (shh!)tasted the batter as I imagined licking the spoon.
Finally, I saw myself placing the muffin tin in the oven, feeling the heat from the open door.
The more I focused on engaging my senses through the power of imagination, the more my fear stayed at bay. I can’t say that this personal guided imagery made my MRI a walk in the park, but it did ease an intensely stressful situation.
Enough, at least, to prevent me screaming and flailing in the MRI tube. I successfully got through the remaining 25 minutes of the procedure without a meltdown.
Now that I’ve used this technique, I know I’ll apply it again and again in the future.
Curious about how to use guided imagery for yourself? Here’s how it works — and how to make the most of it in times of stress.
Clearly, imagining making muffins isn’t everyone’s ideal stress reliever.
If you’ve never experimented with guided imagery, you may prefer to start with a video or audio recording to walk you through sights, sounds, and other sensations to harness your mind.
You can also find pre-recorded guided imagery practices on YouTube. When you’re ready, you can use the steps below to create your own practice.
- Select a scenario that engages all five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound.
- Choose something that’s easy to picture. Try a comforting place you’re familiar with, like your bedroom or favorite beach. You can also imagine a familiar, soothing hobby, like walking in nature, knitting, or doing yoga.
- Visualize that scene and experience it through each sense. How does it smell, look, taste, feel, sound?
- If you find your mind wandering, go back and focus on the senses to ground you in the experience and connect you to your body.
- When you’re ready, envision a final event. Maybe you arrive a the end of your task, the end of a path, or your last yoga pose. Then bring your attention back to the room you’re in and what’s going on around you in the physical world.
Guided imagery is a relaxation technique, so it’s no surprise it involves the nervous system.
“Guided imagery allows us to turn off the stress response and turn on the healing response in the brain,” explains neuroscience expert Patrick K. Porter, PhD, founder of brain fitness app BrainTap. “This allows our nervous system to experience a disassociated state to de-stress.”
Interestingly, Porter points out that the brain responds the same whether you’re actually performing an activity or just visualizing it.
For this reason, you can benefit from a physical reduction in stress just from picturing calming imagery.
Relaxation techniques like mindfulness meditation and deep breathing are extremely effective in many—but not all—cases of stress.
During intensely difficult or painful situations (like dental work or heavy turbulence on a flight, for example) focusing on what’s happening around you may be more distressing than calming.
Enter guided imagery.
“I believe guided imagery is a better choice in these types of situations because you can project your mind or consciousness to another place,” explains Porter. “This way we don’t identify in the present moment with any pain or discomfort in the body.”
In fact, some studies have shown that guided imagery could provide drug-free pain relief.
Don’t use guided imagery in situations that require alertness, like operating a vehicle.
When grounding yourself in the present isn’t a pleasant prospect, consider taking yourself on a journey of guided imagery.
Whatever peaceful mental getaway you choose, it may relieve stress and see you through tough situations.
Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.